Dreadnought Page 32

“In here? Heavens, dear girl. I couldn’t say. I should think not, though.”

Gunfire came closer this time, and a bullet ricocheted with a startling ping, though Mercy couldn’t gather where it’d started or where it’d ended up. She heard it tearing through metal and bouncing, landing with a plop.

Someone in the next car up screamed, and she heard the sound of glass being broken yet again, then the sound of return fire coming from inside the train.

Leaning out her own window this time, Mercy saw more horses and more men—at least half a dozen on her side of the train alone—so she skedaddled across the aisle and pushed past the girl who was sitting there already, lying across the seat with her head covered. On that side, she could almost see . . . but not quite.

She reached for the window’s latch, flipped it, and yanked it up so she could get a better look. Craning her face into the wind, Mercy narrowed her eyes against the gusts, and the fierce, cold hurricane of the train’s swift passage. On that side of the train she counted six—no, seven—men on horseback, for a total of maybe fifteen.

She let go of the window and it fell with a sliding snick back into place.

Back on her side of the car, Miss Clay was trying to calm her aunt and urge the woman into a position on the floor. “I’ll pull down the bags,” she was saying. “We’ll use them for cover—I’ll put them between you and the car’s wall, in case of stray bullets.”

Mercy thought this was an eminently sensible plan, and if she’d had any suitcases of her own, she would’ve promptly contributed to the makeshift barricade. In lieu of hard-​shelled luggage, she rifled through her bag and felt the chilly heft of the guns. She hesitated, and while she made up her mind, the train picked up speed with a heave. She swayed on her feet and watched out the window as one of the masked men in gray was outpaced. His horse’s legs churned, pumping like the engine’s pistons, but the beast was losing ground.

He looked up into the window, a rifle slung over his shoulder and a six-​shooter bouncing roughly in one of his hands. He pointed it up at her, or at the window, or at the train in general—she had no way of knowing what he saw as he peered up from the rollicking back of his frothing horse. Maybe he saw nothing but a reflection of the sky, or the passing trees. But for a moment she could’ve sworn they made eye contact. He lowered the gun and flipped it into his holster, while drawing up hard on his horse’s reins and letting it veer off with a bucking skid.

Mercy realized she had been holding her breath. She released it, and she released her grip on her own chest.

Sensing someone standing nearby, she spun about and found herself face-​to-​face with Horatio Korman, who was standing so close, he might’ve been sniffing at her hair. The thought fired through her head—So, I’m not the only one the bushwhacker saw in the window—and she said breathlessly, “Mr. Korman! You’ve startled me!”

The ranger said, “You need to get down. Take some cover like a sane woman, Mrs. Lynch.”

“Mr. Korman, tell me what’s going on!”

“How should I know?” he asked without a shrug. “I’m just a passenger here, myself.”

“Guess,” she ordered him.

“All right, I’d guess raiders, then. They look like Rebs to me, so it’s safe to say they’re sworn enemies of yours, and all that.” If there was an accusation buried there, he let it lie deep, and left the surface of the statement sounding blank. “I’m sure the militia boys on board will make short work of them.”

From up front, a riotous wave of artillery cut through the popping blips of gunfire. The difference between the Dreadnought’s cannon and the bushwhacker rifles sounded like the difference between a lone whistler and a church choir.

The engine kicked and leaned, whipping the cars behind it so they swayed on their tracks, back and forth, harder than before, more violently than normal.

“They’ll be blown to bits!” Mrs. Butterfield declared with naked glee.

But the ranger said, “I wouldn’t bet on it. Look at that, can you see? They’re peeling away, heading back into the woods.”

“Maybe they know what’s good for them after all,” the old woman said smugly.

“I reckon they’ve got a pretty fair idea,” said Horatio Korman. “That was just about the fastest raid I ever saw in my life. Look. It’s already over.”

A final spray of Gatling-​string bullets spit across the scenery, chasing after the men and horses that Mercy could no longer see through her window. “Wasn’t much of a attack,” she observed.

Mrs. Butterfield said, “Of course not. Weak and cowardly, the lot of them. But I suppose this will give me something to write letters about. We’ve certainly had a bit of excitement already!”

“Excitement?” The ranger snorted softly. “They didn’t even make it on board.” He looked down at the woman, still being squeezed tightly in her niece’s arms.

She scowled up at him. “And who are you to comment on the matter? I know by your voice, if not by your rough demeanor, that you must be a Republican, and I daresay it’s a shame and a mockery for you to board this vessel, given your near-​certain sympathies.”

He retorted, “My sympathies are none of your goddamn business. Right now they lean toward getting safe and sound to Utah, and I can assure you I don’t have any desire to get blown up between here and there. So if they got chased off, good. It’s all the same to me.” He flashed Mercy a look that said he’d like to say more, maybe to her, maybe in private someplace.

As if the ranger had not just spoken so harshly, he tipped the brim of his hat to them in turn and said, “Ladies,” as a means of excusing himself and calling the strained conversation to a close.

When he was gone, Miss Clay’s frigid glare settled on Mercy. She asked the nurse, “You know that revolting man?”

“I . . .” She shook her head and took her seat slowly. “He was on the ship I rode to St. Louis. He was a passenger, that’s all.”

“He surely has taken an interest in you.”

“We ain’t friends.”

“Did I hear you tell Captain MacGruder that your husband was from Lexington?”

Mercy told her, “You heard right. And in case you didn’t hear the rest, he died down in Plains, at the camp there. I only found out last week.”

“I’m not strictly certain I believe you.”

“I’m not strictly certain I give a shit,” Mercy said, though she was angry with herself for getting angry at this woman, when she had a story handy that was good enough to cover any suspicious guesses. “But if it makes you feel better . . .” She reached for the satchel again, and pushed past the guns into the wad of papers. She pulled out the sheet that Clara Barton had given her and shoved it under Miss Clay’s nose. “You like to read? Read that. And keep your accusations to yourself.”

Theodora Clay’s eyes skimmed the lines, noted the official stationery, and read enough to satisfy her curiosity. She did not exactly soften, but the rigid lines across her forehead faded. “All right, then. I guess that means I owe you an apology,” she said, but then she didn’t offer one.

Mercy retrieved the paper and lovingly put it back into her bag, next to the note from Captain Sally. “Maybe you owe one to Mr. Korman, too, since he didn’t do anything except tell you the coast was clear.”

Just then, the captain came bursting back through the passenger car with several of his men, including Mr. Purdue and the two blonds who’d first delivered the bad news, who were helping to support an unknown fellow who was bleeding from the shoulder. The captain stopped at Mercy and said, “Mrs. Lynch, you’re a nurse, aren’t you?”

“That’s right. Who told you?”

“A big Texian in the next car up.”

She reached for her bag. “But haven’t you got a doctor on board?”

“We were supposed to,” he said with a note of complaint. “But we don’t, and we’re not picking one up until the next stop. So for now I’ve got a man who could use a little attention, if you’d be so kind as to help us wrap him up.”

“Of course,” she said, happy for the excuse to conclude her awkward talk with Miss Clay.

“Do you have anything useful in that bag of yours?”

“It’s all loaded up with useful things,” she said, and stepped into the aisle behind them. She could tell at a glance that the man wasn’t mortally injured, though his eyes were frantic, like he’d never been hurt this bad before in all his life. But there’s a first time for everything, and this first event was scaring him more than it was hurting him. “Where are you taking him?”

“Back to the last passenger car. It’s only half full, and we can set him down there.”

Mercy followed the small crew back, across the blizzard-​wild interchanges between the cars, and into the last compartment of the last passenger sleeper. There, they tried to lay the man down, but he wouldn’t have it. He sat up, protesting, until Mercy had shooed all but the white-​haired captain away. The car’s few occupants were just beginning to rise off the floor and reclaim their seats, as the captain told them, “It’s fine, everyone. You can come out again. It was just a weak little attempt at a raid, and it’s over now.”

So while they rose from their hiding places, they watched curiously as Mercy removed the injured man’s shirt down to his waist. The captain took a seat on the other side of the compartment so he could watch the proceedings.

He told the patient, “This is Mrs. Lynch. Her husband died in a camp in Georgia not too long ago. She’s a nurse.”

“I gathered that last part,” the man said. It came out of his chest in a soft gust.

“She’s from Kentucky.”

She smiled politely as if to confirm this, and prodded at the injury. “Captain, could you scare up some clean rags for me, and some water? I bet they’ll have some back in the caboose.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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