Dreadnought Page 27

Cunningham sat forward and used the pipe to gesture like a schoolteacher, or like someone’s father explaining the family’s political opinion to a child with too many questions. “See, if that’s all they were doing, that’d be fine. But if all they wanted was to move their own folks back, they didn’t have to send five hundred men with guns and uniforms, bullying their way up past Oneida. They could’ve just sent some of their religious folk from the missions or something—since they got papists coming out the ears—or maybe they could’ve talked to that Red Cross. Get some people out to help the relocaters relocate, that’s fine; but don’t send the contents of a presidio and expect everybody to believe they’re minding nobody’s business but their own.”

Mercy nodded, even though there was a lot she didn’t really understand. She followed enough to ask, “What happened to the troops, then? Five hundred men don’t just disappear into thin air.”

He leaned back again, still drawing shapes with his pipe, which was nearly burned down cool. “I don’t know if it was five hundred or not. Something like that, though. And I don’t know what happened to ’em—could’ve been anything. That far north and west, shoot . . . could’ve been rattlesnakes or Indians, or cholera, or a twister . . . or maybe they ran across a town big enough to object to a full-​on military garrison sneaking across their property. I’m not saying they ran afoul of the locals, but I’m saying it could’ve happened, and it wouldn’t surprise me none.” He put the end of the pipe back in his mouth and bit at it, but didn’t suck at it. And he said, “Wouldn’t be nobody’s fault but their own, neither.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Mercy said, despite the fact that she wasn’t. But she didn’t want to be rude, and there were lots of things she didn’t know about Texas—and even more she didn’t know about Mexico—so she wouldn’t open her mouth just to put her foot in it.

“You see anything else interesting in that paper?” Cunningham asked, giving up on the pipe and drawing one leg up over his knee so he could tamp out the bowl’s contents against the heel of his boot.

“Most of the rest of it’s just stuff about the war.”

“No big surprise there, I guess. Does it say anything about what the Yankees were doing, pushing that line down all the way past Nashville? They must’ve had some good reason for a spearhead like that. God knows they went to plenty of trouble to make it happen, bringing that engine and that mech. Then again,” he mused, “maybe there’s no good reason. Maybe we’re just whittling the war down to the end, and this latest back-​and-​forth is only its death throes. It feels like the end. It feels like something thrashing about before it’s done for.”

Mercy said, “Naw, it don’t talk about why; it just talks about them doing it.” She folded the paper over again, halfway rolling it up. She offered it to the Texian, asking, “Would you like it? I’ve read it now, top to bottom and front to back, and I’m done with it.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but no thank you. Looks like more bad and pointless news to me. I’d just as soon skip it.”

“All right. I’ll just put it in the game room, on one of the poker tables.” She rose, and Cunningham rose with her, touching the front of his hat.

He then sat back down and refilled his pipe. Once it was alight again, he leaned back into the bench to watch the river, the boats, and the occasional fish, turtles, and driftwood sweep on past.


Supper came and went, what felt like many times over, and the days ran together as the Providence dragged itself upstream. It sometimes docked at little spots and big spots between the big cities, loading and unloading cargo, and every now and again losing one or two passengers and taking on one or two new ones. At the Festus stop, the Providence picked up another Texian, as if to maintain some balance of them. The nurse was beginning to think they must be as common as brown, to encounter them just about everywhere.

The new Texian was Horatio Korman, and he was polite without being effusive, preferring to keep to himself for the short remainder of the trip. He was of a somewhat indeterminate age (Mercy guessed he might be thirty-​five or forty, but with some faces it was difficult to judge, and his was one of them), with an average height and build, uncommonly green eyes, and hair that was quite dark, except where a faint streak of white went tearing along the part. His mustache was a marvel of fluff, each wing as big as a sparrow, and clean but not excessively groomed. Mercy thought he looked rather pleasantly like a Texian on an advertisement she’d once seen for a brand of chewing tobacco, as if he fit some mold that she’d heard about, but never actually encountered.

He came aboard with two handheld luggage cases that appeared to be heavy, even for a man with long, apelike arms such as his; and she noted the enormous pair of guns he wore openly on his belt. They were bigger than her inherited six-​shooters by another third, and they hung off his hips like anchors. A long, slim spyglass stuck out of one vest pocket and gleamed a little when he walked.

Captain Greeley saw Mercy watching the new Texian board and find his way to a room. He told her, “That Horatio. He’s a real piece of work, as they say.”

“How’s that?”

The captain shrugged, and lowered his voice just enough to ensure that everyone on deck would listen closely. “You may as well know: He’s a Ranger of the Republic.”

“That’s some kind of lawman, right?”

“That’s right.” He nodded. “I’ve known Ratio going on ten years now, and I’m glad to have him aboard. Not that the going’s been rough, because it surely hasn’t been. It’s been a smooth ride, wouldn’t you say, Mrs. Lynch?”

She said, “Yes sir.”

“But sometimes the trips aren’t so easygoing; and sometimes, the passengers aren’t so easygoing either. I don’t mind telling you, I think that having a woman on board might’ve had a . . . a civilizing effect on some of the lads.”

“Now don’t you go blaming a boring river run on me,” she said.

“Wouldn’t dream of it! But it’s a given: without you there’d have been more drinking, more fussing, and more cardplaying . . . which means more fighting, almost definitely. I know you’re leaving next stop, and I won’t hold that against you, but I hope Horatio stays aboard awhile. He’ll keep me out of trouble. I’d hate to go to jail for throwing a fellow overboard—whether he deserved it or not. I’d rather leave that to the ranger.”

The last night’s supper was a good one, and the next day’s trip was as uneventful as the previous week. When the Providence pulled into St. Louis, Missouri, Mercy was itching to debark and pin down the next leg of her journey. The docking and the settling took half the morning, so by the time the boat was ready to let her go, she stayed one last meal to take advantage of the readily available lunch.

Finally she said her good-​byes to the captain, and to Farragut Cunningham, and to Ranger Korman, who was cool but polite in return. She stepped out onto the pier and idly took the offered hand of a porter, who helped her to leave before he occupied the gangplank with the loading and unloading of whatever was coming and going from the boat.

Mercy dodged the dockhands, the porters, the sailors, the merchants, and the milling passengers at each stall as she left the commerce piers and went back onto the wood-​plank walks of a proper street, where she then was compelled to dodge horses, carriages, and buggies.

She found a nook at a corner, a small eddy of traffic that let the comers and goers swirl past her. From this position of relative quiet, she pulled a piece of paper out of a pocket and examined it, trying to orient herself to Captain Greeley’s directions. A fishmonger saw her struggle to pick the right road, and he offered his services, which got her three streets closer to Market Street, but two streets yet away from it. She intercepted a passing soldier in his regimental grays, and he indicated another direction and a promise that she’d run right into the street she sought.

He was right. She ran right into it, then noted the street numbers on the businesses, which got her to the edge of a corner from whence she could actually spot the lovely new train station whose red-​roofed peaks, towers, and turrets poked up over this corner of the city’s skyline. The closer Mercy drew, the more impressed she was with the pale castle of a building. Although the Memphis station had struck her as prettier, something about the St. Louis structure felt grander, or maybe more grandiosely whimsical. It lacked elaborate artwork and excessive gleam, but made up for it with classic lines that sketched out a medieval compound.

At one end of the platform, there was a crowd and a general commotion, which she skipped in favor of finding the station agent’s office. She followed the signs to an office and rapped lightly upon the open door. The man seated within looked up at her from under a green-​tinted visor.

“Could I help you?” he asked.

She told him, “I certainly hope so, Mr.—” She glanced at the sign on his desk. “—Foote.”

“Please, come inside. Have a seat.” He gestured at one of the swiveling wooden chairs that faced his desk. “Just give me one moment, if you don’t mind.”

Mercy seated herself to the tune of her skirt’s rustling fabric and peered around the office, which was heavily stocked with the latest technological devices, including a type-​writer, a shiny set of telegraph taps, and the buttons and levers that moved and changed the signs on the tracks that told the trains where to go and how they ought to proceed. Along the ceiling hung a variety of other signs, which were apparently stored there. STAY CLEAR OF PLATFORM EDGE read one, and another advertised that BOARDING PASSENGERS SHOULD KEEP TO THE RIGHT. Another one, mounted beside the door in such a way as to hint that it was not merely stored, but ought to be read, declared with a pointing arrow that a Western Union office was located in the next room over.

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