Dreadnought Page 39

“Just take it as a warning to watch your words, and keep your eyes open.” His own eyes narrowed down to slits, then opened again as if realizing how wicked that expression made him look. He told her, “We’re not safe here, Mrs. Lynch. None of us are. We’re a target about a dozen cars long, fixed on a track that can be butchered with a few sticks of dynamite. And anything’s a possibility. I haven’t lived this long by assuming the best of people.”

“Spoken like a spy,” she said flippantly.

“A spy?” He sniffed a little laugh. “If that’s what I was doing with my days, I’d demand a larger paycheck. No, I’m just what was advertised: a scientist, in service to my state and my nation.”

In response to this Mercy asked, “How so? What’s your job here, on this train?”

The teaspoon went into action again, swerving around in the space in front of him. He wove it like a wand, as if to distract her. “Oh, structural things, you understand. It’s my job to see that the train and its engine run steady, and that there aren’t any glitches with the mechanics of the operation.”

“So the coupler breaking—that was the sort of problem you’re meant to catch?”

The scientist sneered. “Problem? Is that what you’d call it?”

“Train bodies aren’t my specialty. What would you call it, if not a problem?”

“I’d call it sabotage,” he grumbled.

“Sabotage! That’s quite a claim.”

The teaspoon snapped down with a clack. “It’s no claim. It’s a fact. Someone sprang that coupler, obvious as can be. They break sometimes, sure—I’ve seen it myself, and I know it’s no rare event—but this was altered. Broken. Intended to fail.”

“Have you said anything to the captain?” she asked.

“He was the first person I told.”

“That’s strange,” she observed. “I would’ve thought that if a spy or criminal was on board, the captain would have had all the soldiers out searching the cars, or asking lots of questions.”

He made a face and said, “What would be the point? If there’s a spy, he—or she—isn’t going to talk just because someone asks about it, and there probably isn’t any proof. All we can do is keep a closer eye on the train itself, and the couplers, and the cars.” His voice trailed off.

Mercy had the very acute feeling that he did not actually mean that they should watch the passenger cars. Whatever he cared about was not riding along in a Pullman; it was being towed in one of the other, more mysterious cars—either the hearse in the back (as she’d begun to think of the car that held the corpses), or the cars immediately behind the Dreadnought engine itself.

He sat there, temporarily lost in thought. Mercy interrupted his reverie by saying, “You’re right. All we can do is keep our eyes open. Watch the cars. Make sure no one—”

“Really,” it was his turn to interrupt, “we ought to watch each other.”

Then he collected his diluted coffee and retreated from the table, back into the next car up.

For all that Mercy instinctively loathed the man, she had to agree with him there. And, as a matter of self-​preservation, she suspected she ought to keep a very close eye on Mr. Malverne Purdue indeed.


Topeka came and went, and with its passing, the Dreadnought acquired the oft-​promised physician, an Indianan named Levine Stinchcomb. He was a skeletal man, and less elderly than the slowness of his movements and the stiffness of his speech might lead one to suspect on first glance; Mercy had him figured for a man of fifty, at the outside. His hair was salted with gray, and his hands had a long, lean look to them as if he were born to play piano—though whether or not he did, the nurse never thought to ask.

Dr. Stinchcomb greeted Mercy as a matter of professional courtesy, or possibly because Captain MacGruder made a point of introducing them, in case it proved useful in the future. The good doctor struck her as a man who was generally kind, if slightly detached, and over tea she learned that he’d served the Union as a field doctor in northern Tennessee for over a year. He was not much inclined to conversation, but he was pleasant enough in a quiet way, and Mercy decided that she liked him, and was glad to have him aboard.

This was significant because she’d known more than a few doctors whom she would have been happy to toss off the back of the train. But Stinchcomb, she concluded, might be useful—or, failing usefulness, he was at least unlikely to get in the way.

After tea, he retreated to his compartment in the second passenger car, and she saw little of him thereafter.

Topeka also saw the arrival and departure of a few other passengers, which was to be expected. Along with the doctor, cabin gossip told Mercy that the train had gained a young married couple who had freshly eloped and were on their way to Denver to explain things to the young lady’s parents; three cowboys, one of them another Mexican man by birth and blood; and two women who could have best been described as “ladies of ill-​repute.” Mercy didn’t have any particular problem with their profession, and they were friendly enough with everyone, though Theodora Clay took a dim view of their presence and did her best to scowl them along their way any time they passed through on the way to the caboose.

Mercy took it upon herself to befriend them, if only to tweak Miss Clay’s nose about it. She found the women to be uneducated but bright, much like herself. Their names were Judith Gilbert and Rowena Winfield, respectively. They, too, would debark in Denver, so they’d be present for only another week.

The ever-​changing social climate of the train was well matched with its constant movement, the ever-​present jogging back and forth, the incessant lunging and lurching and rattling of the cars as they counted the miles in ties and tracks. It became second nature, after a while, for Mercy to introduce herself to strangers knowing that they’d part still strangers within days; just as it was second nature, after a while, to ballast and balance every time she rose from her seat, working the train’s side-​to-​side momentum into the rhythm of her steps. Even sleeping got easier, though it never became easy. But in time that, too, became a tolerable habit—the perpetual low-​grade fatigue brought on by never sleeping enough, and never sleeping well . . . though sleeping quite often, for there was so little else to do.

Though the days rolled together smoothly, if dully, there were hints that things were not perfectly well.

In Topeka, the passengers had not been permitted to leave the train, even to stretch their legs; and there were moments of tension back around the rear-​end hearse. She’d heard men arguing, and Malverne Purdue’s voice rising with an attempt at command. No one would tell her what the trouble had been, and she’d had no good reason to go poking around, but she’d heard rumors here and there that another coupler had been on the verge of breaking—whether from sabotage or wear and tear, no one was inclined to say.

Whatever was being so carefully guarded up front was also posing a problem. One night she overheard the captain raising his voice—at Purdue, she’d gathered, though she caught only one phrase of it, carried on the breeze as she lounged in the second passenger car with Judith and Rowena, who were teaching her how to play gin rummy.

“. . . and don’t worry about that car, it’s my responsibility—stick with your own!”

All three of their heads had lifted at that, for it had been strangely loud, shooting into the window behind them by some trick of acoustics.

Judith said, “Whatever they’re bickering about, I’m siding with the captain.”

She was taller, blonder, and fuller figured than her companion, with ringlets that never seemed to fail and a porcelain complexion that blushed as pretty as a peach. Rowena was the smaller and darker of the two, and her form was less impressive; but it was Mercy’s opinion that she was by far the more attractive. Where Judith had plain features but fine coloring, Rowena had the coal-​colored hair of the black Irish, and the periwinkle eyes to offset it.

Rowena said, “Damn straight,” and played a card. “I don’t like the scientist—that is, if he is what he says he is. He’s up to something. It’s those weaselly little eyes, and that nasty little smile.” She shook her head. “The captain, though, he’s a looker, with that frosty hair and the face of a boy. The uniform don’t hurt him none, either.”

Mercy said, “It’s funny what they say about men in uniform—how people think women just can’t resist ’em. Fact is, I think we’re just pleased to see a man groomed, bathed, and wearing clothes that fit him.”

Captain MacGruder selected this moment to come blasting into the car, in the process of passing through it and toward the back of the train. His boyish face was red with rage, and set in a series of angry lines. He did not notice the women—in fact, he seemed not to notice anything but the next door, as he grabbed it, yanked it open, and flung himself through it, as if to put as much distance and as many barriers between himself and Malverne Purdue as humanly possible.

Mercy voiced this last thought aloud, and Judith said, “Can you blame him? Wait for it. Weasel-​nose will be along in his wake, any second now.”

Sure enough, the forward door opened with somewhat less violence and Malverne Purdue came slinking through it, smoothing his carrot-​colored coif and behaving as if he was quite certain that no one had heard him receive the dressing-​down. He saw the women and flashed them one of his smarmy grins that always verged on a look of distaste, touched his hat to them, and followed after the captain.

Judith raised both eyebrows behind him and said, “My! I wonder what that was about.”

The game continued, and soon they played against the backdrop of a flat Kansas sky that was taking on strips and streaks of gold, pink, and the shade of new bluebonnets. Rowena had a flask filled with apricot-​flavored brandy, and she passed it around, making Mercy feel like quite the rebel. Drinking brandy and playing cards with prostitutes was not something she’d ever imagined herself doing . . . but ,well, things changed, didn’t they? And given another couple of weeks, she’d never see any of these people again, anyway. She found it difficult to care what her mother would say if she only knew, and even more difficult to care what her father would think, wherever he was, if he was still alive.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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