Dreadnought Page 29

“Me, too.” She nodded.

“You nervous?” he asked.

She lied. “No.”

“Me neither,” he said, but she figured he was probably telling the truth. He didn’t look nervous. He looked like a man who had someplace to be, and didn’t much care how he got there. His two large leather cases still dangled, one at the end of each hand; and his guns must’ve chafed against his forearms when he walked, but he wore them anyway, as casually as a lady would wear a brooch.

Mercy asked, “How far will you ride?”

He glanced at her quickly, as if the question startled him. “Beg your pardon?”

“How far?” she tried again. “It goes all the way out to Tacoma, if you ride it long enough. But it stops a bunch of times between here and there.”

He said, “Ah,” and his eyes snapped back to the metal train. “Utah. But I might end up leaving sooner. Remains to be seen,” he said vaguely. Suddenly he turned to her, and he set one of his cases by his feet so he could take her arm as he bent down to her height. “Mrs. Lynch,” he said, and his breath was warm on her skin.

“Mr. Korman!”

“Please,” he said softly. “I can bet old Greeley told you my job, and my distinction.” He looked left and right, and brought his face so close to her ear that she could feel the tickle of his mustache against her cheekbone. “And I’d appreciate it if you’d keep that information to yourself. This being a Union train, I’ll have trouble enough on board as a Texian. They don’t need to know the rest.”

She drew back, understanding. “Of course,” she said, nodding but not retreating any farther. “I won’t say a word.”

The press and flow of the crowd shifted closer to the cars upon hearing some instructions. Horatio Korman stuffed his second bag up under his arm and took Mercy’s hand. “Will you accompany me, Mrs. Lynch? The two of us being two of a kind, and all . . . or, at least, two folks of similar sentiments.”

“I suppose I could,” she said, but he was already leading her against a current of people waving their bags and reading their tickets instead of watching their steps.

The ranger drew his duster forward over his guns, and adjusted his bag. He took Mercy’s envelope of tickets and receipts as boldly as he’d taken her hand. Together they reached the steps to the second car, which was being watched by a man in a crisp uniform in a shade of sky-​blue that marked him as a Union underling. But he was an armed underling, and he examined all approaching passengers with the same steady eye.

A porter stood to the other side of the steps, his gloved hand out and ready.

Horatio Korman handed over his own ticket as well as Mercy’s. Once they’d been examined, he reclaimed both stamped items and returned the nurse’s to her envelope, and the envelope to her hand. Then he picked up his bags once more and led the way inside.

Mercy followed, aware of the implication and a little annoyed, but a little comforted by the ranger’s appropriation of her presence. He hadn’t wanted to speak with her; he’d wanted her company the way he’d wanted to draw his overcoat forward to cover his firearms. He’d selected her as a reasonably respectable woman of a similar social class, in order to draw less scrutiny as he boarded the train; and because she was a southern girl, he figured he could trust her not to open her big mouth.

Damn the man, he’d been right.

She stood at the entrance to the passenger car’s door, blocking the way. She looked back over the platform and the assembled people there, and forward into the car. Horatio Korman was nearly out of sight, almost at the next car back, where he apparently intended to go without her.

On the terrible engine, a whistle the size of a small barrel gulped against its tightened chain, inhaled, and screamed out a note that could be heard for a mile and maybe more. It screeched through the station like a threat or a dare, holding its tune for fifteen seconds that felt like fifteen years.

Even after it’d stopped, it rang in Mercy’s ears, loud as a gong.

And behind her, the porter with the clean white gloves called out in a voice that sounded very small in comparison, but must have been quite loud, “All aboard!”


Mercy’s seat was in the fourth passenger car. To the best of her assessment, this meant that the train was lined up thusly: the great and terrible engine, a coal car, a secondary car that probably managed the diesel apparatus or other armaments, a third car whose purpose Mercy could not gather, the seven passenger cars (two Pullman first-​class sleeping cars in the lead, the remaining passenger-​class cars behind them), then a caboose with full food service, and, finally, an additional caboose that was no caboose at all, but the refrigerated car carrying the remains of the Union war dead. This car was strictly off-​limits to all, as was made apparent by the flat bar with a lock the size of a man’s fist securing both the front and back doors of the thing, in addition to its painted-​over windows that allowed not even the slimmest glimpse inside.

But Mercy could see none of this from inside her compartment in the fourth sleeper car, a square box with a wall of windows and two padded bench seats that faced each other. Each seat could’ve comfortably sat three women dressed for travel or four men dressed for business, but the nurse had the full length of the bench to herself.

She spent fifteen nervous minutes sorting out her brittle yellow tickets and the papers that ought to accompany her, including both the notes on her husband’s passing from the Union Army and her certification from the Robertson Hospital, which said such contradictory and true things about her that she once again thanked heaven she’d kept them in her personal bag, and not stuffed them into the long-​lost portmanteau.

The Ranger Horatio Korman was nowhere to be seen or found, but, as the train was being settled, two women came to take the bench that faced Mercy. After polite nods, Mercy watched them closely. She had no idea how long they’d be forced to look at one another or how well she could expect to enjoy their company—if at all.

One woman was quite elderly and small, with a back that was beginning to hunch despite her corsetry’s determined stance against this development. Her hair was white, and simply but firmly styled, and her eyes were a watery gray that spotted everything from behind a light wire set of spectacles. She wore black gloves that matched strangely with her pale blue dress, and a little black hat that suited the gloves even if the dress did not. She introduced herself as Norene Butterfield, recently widowed, and her companion as her niece, Miss Theodora Clay.

Miss Theodora Clay was taller than her aunt by a full head, never mind the low gray hat that capped her shiny brown curls. She was younger than the other woman by forty years at least, which might have put her near thirty; she wore a smart but inexpensive lavender suit and gray gloves, plus black boots that peeked their pointed toes from beneath her skirt when she lifted Mrs. Butterfield’s luggage to store it in the drop-​down berth above.

The sight of her made Mercy feel unkempt, and inclined her to camp in the washroom section of the car—but, she concluded, not until the train was moving and their trip was under way. Besides, the washroom was presently occupied by a tired-​looking man with two small children who had trundled inside and shut the door ten minutes previously. He could be heard begging the little boys to finish up and wash their hands, or wash their faces, or fasten their drawers.

She was not particularly comfortable, but she very much wanted the trip to get under way. She could not help but notice how many armed, uniformed men were riding the train . . . particularly for a civilian operation, as had been so vigorously claimed. Mrs. Butterfield spied Mercy watching the enlisted lads and said in a surprisingly hearty voice, “It’s a relief to have them aboard, isn’t it?”

“A relief? I suppose, yes,” she said without committing herself to anything.

“We’ll be going through Indian country, after all,” she added.

Mercy said, “I guess that’s true,” even though she didn’t have the foggiest idea where Indian country began or ended, except a nebulous sense that it was someplace west.

“I rather like seeing them, the blue boys, with their guns. Makes me feel safer,” she said with the certainty of someone who’d heard about the threat, but was fairly certain she’d never meet it in person. It reminded Mercy of Dennis and Larsen from the crash in Tennessee. “And so many of them so young, and unmarried.” She turned a keen, squinty eye to her niece, who was reading a newspaper.

Miss Clay did not look up. She said, “No doubt, Aunt Norene.”

“And what of you, dear?” she returned her attention to Mercy, who was not wearing her gloves and therefore had her wedding band on display. “Where’s your husband?”

“He died,” she said, doing her best to moderate an accent that would’ve given her away anywhere, even underwater. But their chitchat had progressed this far without any commentary upon it, so she hoped for the best.

“In the war?” Mrs. Butterfield asked.

Mercy nodded. “In the war.”

The old woman shook her head and said, “Sometimes I wonder that we’ve got any men left at all, after all this time fighting. I despair for my niece.”

Her despaired-​for niece turned the newspaper page and said, “I suppose someone must.” But she added no further objection or encouragement.

Mercy hadn’t known and hadn’t asked, when the two women joined her, where they might have come from or where their sensibilities might lie; but within the hour she learned that they were from Ohio, and they were headed west to investigate some property left by the late Mr. Butterfield, who’d bequeathed them a mine. However, the details were fuzzy, and his death must’ve been quite some time ago for Mrs. Butterfield to traipse about in powder blue. Miss Clay had once been engaged to a highly placed and upstanding Union major, but alas, he’d been killed on the field less than a month before their wedding day.

All this information came from Mrs. Butterfield, with Miss Clay declining to annotate the chatter. Indeed, she seemed more predisposed to break into her assortment of papers and novels, even though the journey had not yet started.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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