Dreadnought Page 36

“Sure, I’ll take them,” Mercy said, wondering what terrible accident had so badly injured the woman’s body, if not her spirit. She took the telegrams and left the office with Mabel’s thanks echoing in her ears, heading down to the station agent’s office and the window where the conductors collected their itineraries, directions, and other notes.

Down at that window, two men were arguing over tracks and lights. Mercy didn’t want to interrupt, so she stood to the side, not quite out of their line of sight but distant enough that she didn’t appear to be eavesdropping. And while she waited for them to finish, she did something she really shouldn’t have. She knew it was wrong even as she ran her finger along the brown folder, and she knew it was a bad idea as she peeled the cover aside to take a peek within it. But she nonetheless lifted a corner of the folder and glanced at the sheets there, realizing that they weren’t all notes for the conductor: some were telegrams intended for passengers.

Right there on top, as if Heaven itself had ordained that she read it, she saw a most unusual message. At first it made no sense whatsoever, but she read it, and she puzzled over it, and she slapped the folder shut when the men at the window ceased their bickering and went their separate ways.

It said,


Alas, her workmanlike reading skills moved too slowly to give it a second, more through inspection before the conductor spotted her. Once he did, she approached him, to keep from looking too guilty. She handed the folder to the man, bid him good evening, and returned to her hotel room feeling deeply perplexed and revisiting the message in her mind.

By the time she undressed for bed, she’d guessed that “OC” might be Oklahoma City, since “KC” was so obviously Kansas City. She didn’t know what the “Shenandoah” was, but if it was traveling at top speed, and trying to “catch” the Dreadnought, she was forced to assume that it must be a mighty piece of machinery indeed. And what did “CB” mean? Was it someone’s initials? A code name? A sign-​off?

“Shenandoah,” she whispered to herself. A southern name, for southern places and southern things. “Could be a unit or something.” She turned over, unable to get very comfortable on the cheap bed, yet grateful enough for it that she wanted to stay awake and enjoy the fact that it wasn’t moving. So she stayed up and asked the washbasin against the wall. “Or another train?”

The last thing that rolled through Mercy’s mind before her eyes closed and stayed that way was that Ranger Korman was right.

Someone on board was a Rebel spy.

It wasn’t her, and she didn’t think—based on their conversation over supper—that it was the ranger, either. So whom did that leave?

She sighed, and said, “Could be almost anyone, really.”

And then she fell asleep.


Come morning, Mercy stood on the train station platform with her fellow passengers, waiting for the opportunity to board once more. She noticed a few absences, not out of nosiness, but simply because she’d become accustomed to seeing the same people day in and out for the previous week. Now she saw new faces, too, looking curiously at the awe-​inspiring engine and discussing amongst themselves why the train required such an elaborate thing.

The conductor overheard the questions, and Mercy listened to his answer, though she didn’t know how much of it to believe. “True enough, this is a war engine,” he said, patting at the boiler’s side with one gloved hand. “But that doesn’t mean this is a war operation. We’re sending some bodies of boys from the western territories back home, and while we’re at it, we’re bringing this engine out to Tacoma to retrofit it with a different sort of power system.”

One curious man asked, “Whatever do you mean?”

“At present, she’s running on a two-​fuel system: diesel and coal steam. She’s the only Union engine of her kind, though I understand the Rebs use diesel engines pretty regularly. In Tacoma, we’re going to see if we can retool her to use straight diesel, like theirs. It’ll give us more power, better speed, and a lighter payload if we can work it out.”

Mercy had a hard time figuring how a liquid fuel would be any lighter than coal, but she was predisposed to disbelieving him, since his story was different from the St. Louis station agent’s—and now that she’d talked to the ranger, and now that she’d seen the telegram that wasn’t meant for her eyes. She’d never quite bought that the war engine was on a peaceful mission, and the longer she looked at it, the more deeply she felt that the train’s backstory was a lie.

Then something dawned on her, seeming so obvious that she should’ve thought of it before. She did her best not to draw anyone’s attention by dashing. Instead, she shuffled back toward the rear end of the train, to the caboose, and the bonus car that trailed bleakly behind with all its windows painted over. There was a guard standing on the platform that connected it to the caboose, but no one else was paying it any mind.

Mercy had no means of telling whether or not anything had come or gone, or been loaded or unloaded. But she spied an older negro porter, and she quietly accosted him. “Excuse me,” she said, turning her body to keep her face and her voice away from the guard, who wasn’t watching her, but might’ve been listening.

“Yes ma’am. How can I help you?”

“I was wondering . . . have those fellows opened that car at all? Taken anything off it, or put anything inside it?”

“Oh no ma’am,” he said with a low, serious voice. He shook his head. “None of us are to go anyplace near it; we was told as soon as it stopped that nobody touches the last car. I even heard-​tell that some of the soldiers got a talking-​to for getting too close or peeking in the windows. That thing’s sealed up good.”

She said, “Ah,” and thanked him for his time before wandering back to the passenger cars, turning this information over in her mind as she went. If the train was transporting war dead home to rest, why weren’t any of them ever dropped off? She wondered who on earth she could possibly share her suspicions with, then saw the ranger leaning up against one of the pillars supporting the station overhang, an expression on his face like he’d been licking lemons.

“Mr. Korman,” she said. He must have heard her, but he didn’t look at her until she was standing in front of him.

“What?” he asked.

“And a fine morning to you, too, sir,” she said.

“No, it isn’t.”

She asked, “How’s that?”

He spit a gob of tobacco juice in an expert line that ended with a splatter at the foot of the next pillar over. He didn’t point, but he nodded his head toward a spot by the train where two dark-​haired men were chatting quietly, their backs to Mercy and Horatio Korman. “You see that?”

“See what? Those two?” The moment she said this, one of them pivoted on a sharp-​booted heel, casting a wary glance across the crowd before returning to his soft conversation. His face had a shape to it that might’ve been part Indian, with a strong profile and skin that was a shade or two darker than her own. He had thick black eyebrows that had been groomed or combed, or merely grew in an unlikely but flattering shape. He and his companion were not speaking English, Mercy could tell, even though she couldn’t make out any of their particular words. Their chatter had a different rhythm, and flowed faster—or maybe it only sounded faster, since the individual syllables meant nothing to her.


Temporarily knocked off topic, Mercy asked, “Really? What are they doing here? They’re going to ride the train with us?”

“Looks like it.”

She thought about this, and then said, “Maybe you ought to talk to them. Maybe they’re here for the same reason as you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“What’s so ridiculous about that? You want to know what happened to their troops; maybe they want to know what happened to them, too. Look at them: they’re wearing suits, or uniforms of some sort. Maybe they’re military men themselves.” She squinted, not making out any insignia.

“They ain’t no soldiers. They’re some kind of government policemen or somesuch. You’re probably right about what they’re after, but there’s nothing they can contribute to the search.”

She demanded, “How do you figure that?”

“Like I told you the other night, they don’t know any more about it than we do. I’ve got all the best information at hand, and I’ve busted tail and greased palms to get it. I’m closer to learning the truth than anybody on the continent, and that includes the emperor’s cowpokes.”

She gave a half shrug and said, “Well, they’ve gotten this far, same as you. They can’t be all useless.”

“Hush up, woman. They’re trouble, is what they are. And I don’t like trouble.”

“Something tells me that’s not altogether true.”

His mustache twitched in an almost-​smile, like when he’d discovered the guns under her cloak. “You might have me there. But I don’t like seeing them. No good can come of it.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever met any Mexicans before.”

“They’re tyrants, and imperialists, every last one of them.” If he’d been holding any more tobacco in his lip, he no doubt would’ve used it to chase the sentence out of his mouth.

“And I guess you’ve talked to every last one of them, to be so sure of that.”

The ranger reached for his hat to tip it sarcastically and, no doubt, walk away from the conversation, but Mercy stopped him by saying, “Hey, let me ask you something. You know anything about a . . . a train?” She went with her best guess. “Called the Shenandoah?”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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