Dreadnought Page 37

“Yeah, I’ve heard of it.”

“Is it . . .” She wasn’t sure where she was headed, but she fished regardless. “Is it a particularly fast train?”

“As far as I’ve heard. Rolls for you Rebs, I think. Supposed to be pretty much the swiftest of the swifties,” he said, meaning the lightweight hybrid engines that were notorious for their speed. They’d been designed and mostly built in Texas, some of them experimental, as the Texians had searched for more ways to make use of their oil.

She stood there, nodding slowly and wondering how much she should tell him. He’d already made plain that he didn’t care what the Rebs wanted with the train. Then again, he might’ve been lying, or he might care if he thought there were spies on board. Anyway, it wasn’t like she had anybody else to tell.

While she was still pondering, he said, “What makes you ask, anyway?”

She would’ve answered, too, if the whistle hadn’t chosen that precise moment to blow, causing the few children present to cover their ears and grimace, and the milling adults to cluster tighter together, pressing forward to the passenger cars in anticipation of boarding or reboarding.

“Never mind,” she said instead. “We can talk about it later.”

She walked away from him and joined the press of people. As the crowd thickened, she was more and more likely to be spotted conspiring with the ranger; and although she was the only one who knew he was a ranger, everyone had already gathered that he was a Texian, and she didn’t want to join him as a pariah. She understood why he would prefer to keep his status as a law enforcer quiet, though: military men like to have a hierarchy. They wouldn’t have liked to think that someone outside that hierarchy was hanging around, wearing guns, and from a strictly legal standpoint, they wouldn’t have any authority over him. But they could make his life difficult, especially in such a confined mode of transport.

Back on board the train, Mercy was surprised to note that Mrs. Butterfield and Miss Clay had beaten her to the compartment. She was even more surprised, and openly curious, to note that the two Mexican men had been assigned to her own car. The two ladies opposite her were not whispering, just conversing about the newcomers in their normal voices.

“I heard them speaking Spanish,” said Mrs. Butterfield. “Obviously I don’t understand a word of it, but that one fellow there, the taller one, he looks almost white, doesn’t he?”

“He might be white,” Theodora Clay pointed out. “There are still plenty of Spaniards in Mexico.”

“Why? Wasn’t there some kind of . . . I don’t know . . . revolution?” Mrs. Butterfield asked vaguely.

Her niece replied, “Several of them. But I wonder why they’re on board, heading north and west? That sounds like the wrong direction altogether, don’t you think? They aren’t dressed for the weather, I can tell you that much.”

Mercy suggested, “Why don’t you ask them, if you really want to know?”

Mrs. Butterfield shuddered, and gave Mercy a look that all but said, Good heavens, girl. I thought I knew you! Instead, she told the nurse, “I’m sure I’m not interested in making any strange new friends on this occasion. Besides, they probably don’t speak English. And they’re all Catholics anyway.”

“I bet they do speak English,” Mercy argued. “It’s pretty hard to find your way around if you don’t speak the language, and they’ve made it this far north all right.”

Miss Clay arched an eyebrow, lifting it like a dare. “Why don’t you go chat them up, then?”

Mercy leaned back in her seat and said, “You’re the one who’s dying to know. I was only saying that if you were that desperate, you could just ask.”

“Why?” Miss Clay asked.

Mercy didn’t understand. “Why what?”

“Why aren’t you interested? I think interest is positively natural.”

She narrowed her eyes and replied, “I’m inclined to mind my own business, is all.”

But later on that day, nearly up to evening, Mercy found her way back to the caboose in search of supper, and there she found the two Mexicans seated at a table with Captain MacGruder and the injured (but relatively able-​bodied) Morris Comstock. Morris smiled and waved, and the captain dipped his hat at her, which gave her the perfect excuse to join them. She ordered a cup of tea and some biscuits with a tiny pot of jam and carried them over to the seat the men had cleared in her behalf.

“Gentlemen,” she said, settling herself. She made a point of making eye contact with the two Mexicans, for the sheer novelty if nothing else. They seemed to find her presence peculiar, but they behaved like the gentlemen she’d accused them of being, and murmured greetings in response.

“Mrs. Lynch,” said the captain. “Good to see you again. We were just having a little talk with these two fellows here. They’re from Mexico.”

Morris said, “We were giving them a friendly warning, too. About that Texian riding in the sixth car. He’s a mean-​looking bastard, and I hope he don’t make problems for these folks.” However, he said it with a gleam that implied he might not be too disappointed at the chance to reprimand the ranger.

MacGruder cleared his throat and said more diplomatically, “I understand you’re acquainted with the Republican in question. Came out on the same riverboat, to St. Louis, is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right. I don’t believe it’s come up before, though. How did you know?”

“Miss Clay might have mentioned it, in passing.”

“I see.”

“Señora,” said the darker of the two men, the one she’d seen at the station with the uncommonly tidy eyebrows. “Please allow me to introduce myself: I am Javier Tomás Ignacio Galeano.” He said the names in one long string that sounded like music. “And this is my associate, Frederico Maria Gonsalez Portilla. We are . . . inspectors. From the Empire of Mexico. We do not intend to cause a stir aboard this train; we are only in the process of discovering what has happened to a lost legion of our nation’s soldiers.”

Mercy was glad his English was so good. She didn’t need to strain to understand him, and she didn’t feel that idiotic compulsion to speak loudly. She said, “I’ve heard about that—it’s in the newspapers, you know.”

His fellow inspector said, “Yes, we are aware that it has made your papers. It is a great mystery, is it not?”

“A great mystery indeed,” she agreed, feeling a tiny thrill over the conversation with a foreigner. She’d known plenty of northerners and southerners, but she’d never met anybody who was from a-​whole-​nother country before. Except Gordon Rand, and he didn’t hardly count.

Inspector Galeano fretted with his napkin and said, “If only we knew what had happened, out in the west of Tejas.” He called the Republic by the name it’d worn as a Mexican state.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He told her, “Something occurred, and it sent them off course, up past the low, hot country and north into the mountains. We have learned that they made it as far as the territory of the . . . of the . . .” He searched his English vocabulary for a word, but failed to find it.

“Utah,” Morris Comstock provided. “Where the Mormons live, with all them wives.”

“Mormons, yes. The religious people. Some of them have made reports . . . terrible reports.”

Mercy almost forgot that she wasn’t supposed to know any of this, but managed to stop herself from exclaiming about the cannibalism before anyone could ask her how she’d come by the information. Instead, she said, “I’m sorry to hear that. Do you have any idea what happened? Do you think the Texians did something . . . rash?”

Inspector Portilla’s forehead crinkled at the use of rash, but he gleaned the context and said, “It’s always possible. But we do not think that is the case. We have had reports that some Texians are implicated as well.”

“What kind of reports? Terrible reports?” she asked.

“Equally terrible, yes. We believe”—he exchanged a glance with Inspector Galeano, who nodded to affirm that this was safe to share—“that there may be an illness of some sort.”

“That’s possible,” Mercy said sagely. “Or a . . . a poison, or something.” Then, to forestall any questions about her undue interest, she said, “I’m a nurse. This stuff’s interesting to me.”

“A nurse?” said Inspector Galeano. “We were told there would be a doctor on the train, but we’ve heard of no such—”

Morris Comstock interrupted. “We were supposed to pick one up in Kansas City, but he never showed. So now we’re supposed to have one in Topeka, maybe. I swear, I think they’re just telling us tales.”

The captain crossed his arms, leaned back, and said to the Mexicans, “Mrs. Lynch is the one who patched up poor Morris here, when he got winged during that raid.”

Inspector Galeano wore a look of intense interest. He bent forward, laid one arm on the table, and gestured with the other hand. “We only developed this idea very recently, from inteligencia that found us in Missouri. But perhaps I can ask you this question—and I hope you will not consider me . . .” He shuffled through his vocabulary for a word, then found it. “Rude.”

“Fire away,” she told him, hoping that she looked the very picture of enthusiastic innocence.

He said, “Very good. These are the facts as we understand them: A partial force of soldiers was sent from a presidio in Saltillo. They met with commanders and acquired more personnel in El Paso. At the time, their numbers were approximately six hundred and fifty. They traveled east, toward the middle of the old state, near Abilene. From there they were to march on to Lubbock, and up to the settlement at Oneida—called Amarillo by your people. By then they had added another hundred settlers to their number. But they never reached Lubbock.”

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