Dreadnought Page 31

“Thank you,” she mumbled, arranging her feet and pushing herself forward, trying not to look at the track scrolling beneath her with such speed that it blurred into a wide, solid line. “We must be going quite fast,” she said dumbly.

“I believe so,” the captain said. He was nearly yelling into her ear, but his words had no sharpness, only genteel agreement. When she reached the other platform, he was immediately behind her; he reached around her to open the door, which had closed behind the two who’d gone before them.

Soon they were safely sealed in the next car back. As they walked, the captain said, “I don’t suppose you do much travel by train.”

“No sir, I don’t,” she told him. “This is only my second trip on a train, ever.”

“Second trip ever? You’ve picked quite a machine for your second voyage. May I ask where you’re from? I can’t quite place you by your speech,” he said mildly, but Mercy knew what he meant.

Most Yankees couldn’t tell a Tennessean from a southern Indianan, much less a Texan from a Georgian, so she went ahead and lied. “Kentucky.” He’d never know the difference, and it was a safe cover for the way she talked.

“Kentucky is a fine state. Bluegrass and horses, as I understand it.”

“Yep. We’ve got plenty of those. The place is lousy with them,” she muttered as she turned sideways to scoot past a sleeping child who’d fallen out of his compartment and hung halfway across the aisle, drooling into the main walkway. She’d never actually been to Kentucky. She’d met Phillip in Richmond, and he’d moved to Waterford to be near her before he’d wound up going to war. Not that this stopped her from knowing a thing or two about the place. They’d talked, after all.

“And your husband?” he asked quietly, for many of this car’s occupants were likewise asleep.

She glanced down at her wedding band, and said, “He passed. In the war.”

“Kentuckian, like yourself?”

“He was from Lexington, yes.”

“I hope you’ll pardon me if I pry, but I can’t help but being curious.”

“Pry away,” she encouraged him, mumbling “Excuse me” to an old man whose legs had lolled into the aisle.

“Where did you lose your husband? Which front, I mean to ask? I’m friends with a few of your bluegrass cousins myself, and I make a point to look out for them, when I can.”

She didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not, which wouldn’t have stopped her from answering. It was something else that made her hesitate: a sensation of being watched. Mercy looked to the back of the car, and to the right, and met the eyes of Horatio Korman, who had been watching, and no doubt listening, too. He did not blink. She looked away first, down to the floor and then up, for the latch on the door out of the car.

Well within Korman’s range of hearing she declared, almost defiantly, “He didn’t die on a front. He died in a prisoners’ camp, at Andersonville. In Georgia.”

“I’m sorry to learn of it.”

“So was I, just a week or two ago,” she rounded off and up, reluctant to relate the incident with any more proximity. “And I hope you’ll forgive me if I leave it at that. I’m still getting the feel of being a widow.”

As the wind of the train’s motion blasted her in the face once more, she turned her head to see the Texas Ranger watching her still, without any expression. Even the edges of his prodigious mustache did not twitch. His eyebrows gave nothing away.

She turned her attention to the crossing junction over the couplers, and this time navigated with slightly more grace. Captain MacGruder closed the door behind them both, and followed her into the next car.

Eventually they reached the caboose, a long, narrow thing with tables and chairs established for food and tea service. Miss Clay was already seated with a cup of coffee that smelled strongly of chicory, and Mr. Purdue was still at the tender’s counter, deciding on the refreshments that would best suit him. Upon seeing the captain, he selected his meal and came to sit beside Miss Clay, as if this were now the natural order of the universe.

“Could I get you anything?” the captain offered, gesturing at the counter, with its menu composed in chalk on a slate. “I can vouch for the—”

But just then, two men burst through the entrance door, looking breathless and thoroughly disheveled. Both were dressed in their Union blues, and both were blond as angels. They might’ve been brothers, though the lad on the left held a brass telescoping device in one shaking hand.

“Captain!” they said together. The man with the telescope held it up as if it ought to explain something, but he was nearly out of breath, so his fellow soldier took over.

“From the lookout on the second car,” he panted. “We’ve got trouble coming up from the east!”

“Coming right at us!”

Captain MacGruder whirled away from the counter and acknowledged them with a nod. “Ladies, Mr. Purdue. Stay here in the back. You’ll be safer.”

Miss Clay opened her mouth to object, but Malverne Purdue beat her to the punch. “Don’t lump me in with the women, you yellow mick.” He pulled a pistol out of his pocket and made a run for the door.

“Fellas!” said the counterman, but no one answered him.

“Excuse us,” said the captain as he pushed the soldiers and Mr. Purdue through the caboose door and back into the blustery gap between the cars. The door slammed shut behind them and Mercy was left, still standing and confused, with only Miss Clay and the counterman as company. She didn’t know which one of them was most likely to know, but she asked aloud, “What’s going on?”

Miss Clay realized she’d been sitting with her mouth open. She covered for this oversight by pulling the cup of coffee to her lips and drinking as deeply as the heat would allow. When she was finished, she said, “I’m sure I don’t know.”

Mercy turned to the counterman, whose uniform was kin to the ones the porters wore. His hair was clipped down close against his scalp, leaving an inky shadow spilling out from underneath his round cap. He said, “Ma’am?” as if he didn’t know either, and wasn’t sure how to guess. But then a set of shots was fired, somewhere up toward the front of the train, far enough away that they sounded meaningless. He said, “Raiders, I suppose. Here in Missouri, I couldn’t say. Bushwhackers, like as not. We’re flying a Union flag, after all.”

Miss Clay took another ladylike sip from her cup and said, “Filthy raiders. Stupid filthy raiders, if they’re coming after a train like this. I don’t see myself getting terribly worked up about it.”

More gunshots popped, and a window broke at the edge of what Mercy could clearly hear. “What about your aunt?” she asked.

At this, Miss Clay’s frosty demeanor cracked ever so slightly. “Aunt Norene?” She rose from her seat and carried the cup over to the counterman, who took it from her. “I suppose I should look in on her.”

“Whether or not you’re worked up about the train being shot at, I think she might be a little concerned,” Mercy told Miss Clay. She had also left her satchel on the seat, where she’d assumed it would be quite safe, but she now wished rather hard for her revolvers. She reached for the door and pulled it open, disregarding the captain’s instructions as if he’d never given them.

Miss Clay was so close on Mercy’s heels that she occasionally trod upon them as they struggled between the cars back into a passenger compartment, where people were ducking down and the shots were more clearly audible. At the moment, all the gunfire seemed to be concentrated at the forward end of the train, but when Mercy leaned across a cowering child to peer out the window, she saw horses running alongside the track at a full gallop, ridden by men who wore masks and many, many guns. She said, “Well, shit,” and drew herself back into the aisle with a stumble.

Miss Clay had passed her and was waving back at her. “Hurry up, if you’re coming.”

“I’m working on it!” Mercy said back, and then the order was reversed, with Miss Clay taking the lead and Mercy all but stumbling over her, trying to reach the next door, the next couplers, the next passenger car.

They flung themselves forward into the fifth passenger car, where Mercy had seen Horatio Korman, but when she looked to the seat where he’d glared at her over that copious mustache, he was nowhere to be seen. She made a mental note of it and pushed forward behind Miss Clay.

In the next car they found the fringes of chaos, and they found Mrs. Butterfield standing in the aisle ordering the other passengers into defensive positions. “You, over there!” she pointed at the man with the two little boys. “Put them into that corner, facing outward. Have you any arms?”

He shook his head no.

She shook her head as if this was absolutely uncivilized and said, “Then stay there with them—hold them in place, don’t let them wander. You!” She indicated a pair of older women who were yet young enough to be her daughters. “On the floor, and careful not to flash anything unladylike!”

“Aunt Norene!” Miss Clay exclaimed, reaching her aunt and pulling her back into the compartment.

Mercy followed, scanning the car for the other passengers. Either Mrs. Butterfield had been an excellent director, or baser instincts had shoved every individual into the corners and underneath the windows with great speed and firmness. Seeing nothing else to be done, Mercy ducked into her seat, seized her satchel, and would’ve interrogated the old lady if Miss Clay hadn’t been doing so already.

“Aunt Norene, you must tell us—what’s happening?”

“Rebs! Filthy stinking raiders. Leftovers of Bloody Bill, I bet you—nasty things, and brutish! They came riding up and firing, right into the cabins!” she blustered.

Mercy looked around and didn’t see any windows shot out, but for all she knew, they’d been playing target practice with them in the cars up ahead. “Is anyone hurt?” she asked, already guessing the answer but not knowing what else to say on the subject.

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