Dreadnought Page 30

Mercy had a feeling that this was her preferred method of ignoring the aunt, for whom she clearly served as nursemaid or assistant. Likewise, the oft-​ignored Mrs. Butterfield was more than happy to find a willing ear in Mercy, who didn’t much mind the interaction, though she could see how it might grow tiresome over the long haul.

Before long, the sharply dressed conductor came walking through the car to examine tickets and, Mercy gathered, take stock of his charges. He was a man somewhere between the ages of Mrs. Butterfield and Miss Clay, with the ramrod posture of a fellow who’d spent some time in the military himself, but he sported a tall steel brace along one leg. This brace propped him into a standing position and clicked softly when he walked, a mechanical limp that carried him from compartment to compartment. His smile was only a narrow, bent line, impatient to be off and away from what was iffy territory at best. Missouri could not be trusted, not by either side.

Mercy watched him examine paperwork and take questions, answering with haste and pushing ever back, back to the next passengers, and soon to the next car.

A dignified old negro in a freshly pressed Pullman porter’s uniform trailed in the conductor’s wake, securing luggage and directing passengers to the washroom, explaining the hours during which food would be served in the caboose, and making informed guesses about how much longer it’d be before they left—or before they stopped again. He secured doors, fastened cabinets, checked his pocket watch against some signal from outside, and followed the conductor into the next car, out of sight.

It took Mercy a moment to realize why this felt strange to her, and why she watched him and her fellow passengers with a wary eye as Mrs. Butterfield lectured her on the subject of ice-​skating. She looked at the people on the train, one face at a time, and saw old men and old women, and a few younger women like herself; and in the comings and goings of the porters, she saw a few negroes who were young enough to be her brother. But the only young white men were soldiers. Some of these soldiers clustered together in their compartments, and others wandered as if on patrol, or maybe they were only restless. A few were painfully young—teenage boys without any facial hair, and with skinny, concave chests and narrow hips. One or two showed terrible scars across the exposed skin of their necks and hands. Sometimes she could guess with professional precision what had caused the wounds. She recognized close-​range shrapnel, artillery burns, and the strange texture of flesh deeply scalded by steam. Mercy privately wondered what her seating companion had so recently wondered aloud—that there were any men left alive at all anymore, on either side.

Finally, after what felt like an interminable delay and an afternoon effectively wasted, the dreadful whistle blew, startling and straightening the backs of everyone inside the seven passenger cars. With a breathtaking hiccup of machinery, the locomotive started forward.

Even Mrs. Butterfield silenced herself as the train’s motion began in earnest, crawling through the station and passing crowds, columns, newsstands, parked and boarding freight, and passenger cars still waiting upon other tracks, in other gates. For these few moments, all eyes were on the windows and the panorama spinning slowly by, picking up speed by pumps and puffs, pulling away from the station and then to the fringe of the city itself, past the freight yards, cabins, sheds, warehouses, and cargo lots. And then, much sooner than Mercy might’ve predicted, they were moving at a steady clip through a no-​man’s-​land of trees, tunnels, tracks, and very little else.

The first few hours were a sedative, lulling the passengers into a contingent of nodding heads, sprawled knees, and open mouths snoring softly. A rotund man with a flask in his vest slipped it up and out, and sipped at the brandy or whiskey he had within it. Within a moment, the wafting fumes told Mercy that the answer was brandy after all.

The world was dull and rocking; the train was a cradle on a track, and even the hardiest travelers were so content to be finally on the move that they grumbled to themselves and slept, even though there were at least another twenty or thirty days of the same routines ahead.

Mercy turned her face to the window, but it was growing February cold—colder here than in Virginia, when she’d left it—and her skin deposited a layer of moistness in the shape of her cheek and the side of her mouth. After all the excitement and fear and uncertainty of learning that she’d be riding on the Dreadnought, and after all the frantic scrambling to bring herself all the way from Virginia to Missouri, she was not yet one day into the westernmost leg of her travel and already bored to distraction. Even the reticent Miss Clay was nodding off, her head occasionally tapping against the top of Mrs. Butterfield’s as they dozed together.

Just when she thought the trip could not become any more tedious, and that she might surreptitiously snatch one of the tempting dreadfuls that were scattered along Miss Clay’s seat, the forward car door opened and two men came strolling through it. They moved single file because the door was so very narrow, and they conversed quietly, though they did not whisper.

The one who was nearest to Mercy was thin, and wearing a Union uniform with a captain’s insignia. His hair was snow white, though his face was peculiarly unlined. If he’d been wearing a brown wig or a hat with fuller coverage than a Union cap, she would’ve guessed him to be around thirty-​five.

He said to his companion, “We’ll need to keep an eye out,” with an accent that came from New England—somewhere north of Pennsylvania.

“Obviously,” spit the other man, as if this were the most preposterous thing anyone had ever said aloud in his presence. “Everything is sealed, but that could change in an instant, and then what?” This second speaker, taller and perhaps of a similar rank (Mercy couldn’t imagine he’d speak so abruptly to a superior), was wearing a uniform that suggested they served the same government, though maybe a different branch. His hair was a color she’d almost never seen before, except on children: a vivid orange that clashed with the fervent brown of his eyes. His face was strong and attractive, but flustered and a little bit mean.

The captain snapped, “The whole thing makes me magnificently nervous. I know what they were saying about it, at the station. And I demand to know—”

“I don’t care about your demands—this is not your job! It’s—” He stopped himself, having snagged Mercy’s gaze with the corner of his eye. He forced a smile that wouldn’t have fooled a blind dog, dipped his head, and said, “Pardon me, ma’am.” His accent was far more neutral, and she couldn’t guess its origins.

She said, “Sure.” Mercy was fiercely curious as to what they’d been talking about, but she wouldn’t learn now. There was little point in keeping them, but she couldn’t bring herself to let the encounter close, so she cleared her throat and said, “I don’t mean to sound nosy or nothing, but I was wondering: I’ve never seen a uniform quite like yours. What work do you do for the Union?”

The first man plastered on a smile that looked somewhat less false than his friend’s, and bowed. He said, “Ma’am, please allow me to introduce myself—I’m Captain Warren MacGruder, and my redheaded friend over here”—he winced at the word friend, but so slightly that almost no one would’ve noticed—“is Mr. Malverne Purdue.”

She asked, “Mr.?”

“Yes. Mr. Purdue is a civilian, and a scientist. He’s being paid as a—” He fished for a word, discarded his first choice, and went with the second thing that came to mind. “—consultant.” But it clearly left a bad taste in his mouth.

“I see,” she said. “My name’s Mercy Lynch, and I didn’t mean to stop you or bother you; I just wondered, is all. Anyway, I was thinking about heading back to the caboose for a little peck of supper. It’s about that time, isn’t it?”

Mr. Purdue all but rolled his eyes. The captain dug around in his pocket for a watch, found it, flipped it open, and confirmed. “Yes, it is. We were just heading there ourselves. Would you care to join us?”

“What a coincidence. And how nice,” she added, pleased at the prospect of company.

At some point during the conversation, Miss Clay had awakened. She’d been watching the scene unfold as well, and chose this moment to say, “I think I’ll join you.”

Mercy was surprised, if for no other reason than that Miss Clay had not seemed very interested in making friends. And it wasn’t as if she needed directions or assistance to the caboose; there were only two ways to go on the train—toward the engine or toward the dead men bringing up the rear.

Miss Clay took the lead, underscoring the fact that she had no real need for company. The captain did not offer his arm to Mercy, but he extended his hand, gallantly offering to let her go first—which was much more clever than offering an arm, given the thin aisle.

Mercy reached for Miss Clay’s arm and caught it with a soft tap. “Miss Clay, what about your aunt?”

Miss Clay gave her elderly charge a glance and said, “She’ll be fine. She’s less of an invalid than she’d have you think, and if she needs something, believe me, she won’t hesitate to wake someone up and ask for it.”

With these assurances, the four of them sidled up to the rear car door and Miss Clay pulled it, mastering the latch immediately—or perhaps she’d spent a great deal of time on trains; Mercy didn’t know. Then she stepped out onto the connecting platform and scarcely touched the supporting rails as she took the two or three steps across, and over to the next car.

Out between the cars, the wind was astonishing. It whipped at Mercy’s cloak and threatened to peel it off her body, but she gripped the front edges and held it fast with one hand while she felt for the rail with the other one. Malverne Purdue stepped past her with great agility, following in the wake of Theodora Clay; but Captain MacGruder waited behind and put a hand on her elbow, attempting to steady her.

Mercy had no hat handy, for she’d never replaced the one she’d lost in the luggage, so her hair was braided up in a fat button behind her ears. As she crushed her eyes into narrow slits against the cold, fast air, the edges of her cloak’s hood flapped like a flag, pulling the braid apart.

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