Dreadnought Page 24

Mrs. Gaines frowned briefly but outright at her language, but didn’t say anything about it. “One would think. And they do pick at the sores, which only makes them worse.”

“It looks almost like . . .” She peered closer. “The crust from sun poisoning. Like blisters that have festered, popped, and dried. Mrs. Gaines, I assume these men are regularly turned over and cleaned?”

The other woman’s mouth went tight. “We pay some of our negro washwomen extra to come up here and perform those duties. But this isn’t a hospital. We don’t have staff that’s prepared or qualified to do such things.”

Mercy waved her hand as if none of this was relevant to what she was asking. “Sure, I understand. But could you tell me if the yellow grit also manifests below the belt?”

Even in the lamplight, Mercy could see Mrs. Gaines redden. “Ah, yes. Erm . . . yes. It does soil their undergarments as well. I realize the poor souls can’t help themselves, but I do wish I knew what it was, and how to prevent it. They’re cleaned daily, I assure you, top to . . . well, bottom. But you see how the material accumulates.”

The nurse sniffed at her fingernail and got a whiff of something sour and sulfurous, with a hint of human body odor attached. Yes. She knew that smell, and it filled her with disgust.

“Irvin,” she said. “Irvin, I’m Nurse Mercy, and I need for you to talk to me.”

He grunted, and tried to look at her through those runny-​egg eyes. “Nurse,” he said. He said it nuss, just like the men at the hospital.

She couldn’t tell if it was an observation or a response, so she plowed forward. “Irvin, you’ve been taking something that’s terrible bad for you, haven’t you?”

“Sap.” The one word came out relatively clear. The next did also. “Need.”

“No, you don’t need it, you silly man. You don’t need it and you can’t have it, either. But I want you to tell me about it. Where did you get it?”

He rolled his face away, but she caught him by the jaw, keeping her fingers well away from his mouth.

“Irvin, answer me,” she said as sternly as any governess, and with all the command she’d learned when bossing about the surly wounded veterans. “Where did you get the sap?”


“Where did your friend get it?”


“All right. Well, tell me this: Do you smoke it like opium, or eat it, or sniff it up your nose?” She doubted that last guess, since the gritty substance also came out of his ears, and she doubted he’d been ingesting it that way.

“Sap,” he said again. Petulant.

“Which friend’s been giving it to you? Tell me that much.”

Irvin’s eyes glittered as he choked out, “Bill Saunders.”

“Bill Saunders!” Mrs. Gaines cried. “I know the man myself; I’ve given him blankets and food for these last few months, and this is how he repays me?”

“Irvin.” Mercy snagged his attention once more. “Where does Bill Saunders get it? Where does the sap come from? What is it made of?”

“West,” he said, drawing out the s against his discolored teeth, making the word sound wet and possibly venomous. “Gets it . . . West.”

Mercy turned to Mrs. Gaines to ask if there were any men from the western territories present. In the short instant that her gaze was directed elsewhere, Irvin’s head leaped up off the striped pillow and his jaw snapped like a turtle’s, making a vicious grab for the nurse’s lingering fingers.

Before Mercy could even think about her reaction, her reaction caught him upside the face in a hard right hook that split his lip and sent runny, strangely colored blood flying against the wall. His bid for human flesh had failed, and now he was unconscious, but Mercy clutched both hands against her bosom and panted like a startled cat.


The morning dawned clear and a little cold. Mercy collected her things from the officer’s suite and departed the Salvation Army mission as soon as was reasonably polite—or, rather, a little sooner; but she hadn’t slept terribly well and was eager to leave the building far, far behind. Her dreams had been plagued by skeletal forms with clacking teeth and a taste for fingers, and with the burned-​yellow smell of death from the gritty substance in Irvin’s ears and nose. She’d dreamt of a whole hospital full of those biting, corpselike men with runny eyes.

She shuddered under her cloak, although it was not really cool enough to warrant it, and hustled away from the mission as fast as her legs could carry her.

This might’ve been a bad area of Memphis, or it might only be that it was dawn, and therefore both too late and too early for much traffic; but she found the city as unthreatening as most places, and less threatening than some. Perhaps Mrs. Gaines had been accustomed to a different standard of living up in Maryland. More likely, it occurred to Mercy as she glanced around, the other woman simply wasn’t accustomed to living amongst so many people who weren’t white.

Mercy stopped a small newspaper boy, unloading his wares onto the curb and setting up his sandwich board. The little fellow had rich brown skin, plus eyes and teeth that seemed unnaturally vital and white compared to the dying men upstairs a block away.

She said, “Boy, could you tell me how to get to the docks?”

He nodded, pointed the way, and gave her a few quick instructions. Like a good little capitalist, he added, “And you can have a paper for just a couple pence ’federate.”

A quick glance at the headlines revealed words like union lines, Chattanooga, civilian crash, and Dreadnought. Since many of those things had had such a recent impact on her person, Mercy said, “All right,” took the paper, and handed the boy some change. She rolled the purchase up and stuffed it into her satchel, then followed the child’s instructions down to a river district that startled her with its size and complexity.

Between the boats, the boardwalks, the businesses, and the early-​morning bustle of commerce beginning, Mercy could see the river in slivers and peeks. She’d heard stories about the Mississippi. Hadn’t everyone? But to see it in real life was to be astounded by the sheer breadth of the thing. By comparison, every other waterway she’d ever passed had been a stone-​skip across. This one—and she saw it better when she brought herself across the street, dodging a pair of carts overflowing with cargo—seemed all but endless. Standing as near to the edge as the civilized crust of the city would let her stand, she still could not see the other shore through the morning mists.

She held her hand up to shield her eyes, but since the sun was still rising behind her, the hood of her cloak served the same purpose when she turned around to take in the scenery.

The strip was thick with cotton retailers and distributors, their signs swinging back and forth with every gust of wind coming high up off the water to the bluff where the city was built. Down the street she saw piles of crates with stenciled labels that declared COCOA, COFFEE, and BULK CLOTH. Men haggled, bartered, and bickered with one another, either arranging for transport for items freshly delivered or seeking a ride to someplace else.

She scarcely knew where to begin, so she asked a woman sweeping a stoop which way she might walk in order to buy passage on the river. The broad-​waisted shopkeep thought about it a moment and said, “Go down that way, past the next couple of streets, down the bluff to the port proper, and ask about the Anchor Line. Them’s the boats what run up and down the river most often, taking people as much as cargo.”

Mercy followed her instructions, and in another twenty minutes found herself standing at the docks for the Anchor Line steamers, only to realize that she couldn’t possibly afford to take one. Every boat was a floating palace of white gingerbread with gold trim, red paddles, and polished whistles that glinted in the lifting dawn. But this was just as well, because from Mercy’s new vantage point, she could see a big REPUBLIC OF TEXAS RIVER TRANSPORT STATION sign strung up between two huge columns shaped like the pumps that dredged up the wealth of that nation.

The Providence was right past the pumps, low in the water, God-​knew-​what filling its cargo hold and a big Lone Star flag flying beside the topmost whistles above a red-​and-​blue-​painted paddle wheel at the stern. It lacked the gingerbread and polish of the Anchor Line crafts, but its design appeared sturdier, more ready to face a fight with a cannon instead of a gloved hand. Maybe it was the set of the prow, like a bulldog’s jaw; or maybe it was the gray paint job and straight, unfrilly lettering on the side that announced the vessel’s name.

Mercy pulled her cloak’s hood back so that her hair hung almost loose, having halfway fallen from the bun she’d put it in an hour earlier. The breeze off the river felt cool and smelled bad, but it was fresh air, and it didn’t carry even a whiff of gunpowder—just the occasional flash of petroleum fuel, which reminded her of the mechanized walker outside Fort Chattanooga.

She approached the dock and stood anxiously, not knowing what to do next. Broad-​shouldered colored men in plaid cotton shirts hefted crates to and fro, two men to a crate, and a pallid white man with a stack of papers was bickering with another man who held another stack of papers.

From behind her, a voice asked, “Hey there, ma’am. Can I help you with something?” in a Texas accent that could’ve stopped a clock.

The speaker wore a hodgepodge outfit that was one part Rebel grays, one part western ranch wear, and one part whatever he’d felt like putting on that morning. His mustache and sideburns were blond once, but had faded on to gray in such a fashion that they grew the consistency and color of a corn tassel.

“Er . . . yes. I think. Thank you, sir,” she said. “I’m Mercy Lynch, and I’d like to buy passage aboard this boat.”

“This ship in particular? That’s right specific of you.”

“I was referred to the Providence by Mrs. Henderson, who I met on a dirigible from Richmond. She told me the captain was her brother-​in-​law, and he might treat me kindly if I could pay my way. And I can. Pay my way, I mean.”

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