Dreadnought Page 42

The sweep of a nearby three-​wheeler was her only answer, not coming close enough to ride alongside the car, but spraying it with enough ammunition to wipe out anyone standing too tall. The whole car stank of gunpowder and ashes, and the sweat of frightened men.

Cyrus Berry turned from his position at his window beside Morris Comstock. He said, “Not here, ma’am. Next car up.”

“There ain’t no next car up,” she griped tiredly.

“Not no passenger car, no. But there is a next car. Go on. The captain’s been sniped and I think Fenwick is maybe a goner. Please, will you? Next car up. They’ll let you in, I swear it.”

The mysterious third car—the one behind the fuel cart and the engine proper—was the very focus of half of this more earnest, better planned raid. She tried to ignore the fact that she might find her answers inside whether or not the captain felt like dishing them out; and she tried to steel herself as she fumbled for the forward door’s slick, chilly latch.

“Ma’am!” shouted Morris Comstock without looking away from his window. “Be careful, and move fast!” He pumped the bolt on the rifle and aimed with one eye shut, and one eye narrowed.

She could scarcely see him, for the twilight and the smoke of the guns had made the air all gummy, even as it rushed and swirled through the open windows. “I will,” she promised, but she didn’t think he could hear her. She seized the slippery latch and gave it a tug, then gave the door a shove with her shoulder.

Almost-​night lashed around her. In the few slim feet between passenger car and mystery car, the air was sharp with bullets and loud with the clank of artillery and the grudging, straining pump of the Dreadnought’s pistons jamming the wheels over and over and over, drawing the train along the tracks and farther into the sunset—chasing it, doomed never to catch it. Begging for just a few more minutes of light.

Off to her left, so immediate and close that it nearly stopped her heart, Mercy saw one of the three-​wheeled monsters leap more intimately into range. She could see, on the other side of the scratched, thick windshield, that there were two men inside, though she could make out nothing but the ovals of their faces and the dark pits of their eyes.

She wondered how they could see at all, then realized that the machines had a murky glow from within. She didn’t know if they had lanterns, or some form of electrical light, or something as simple and magical as a jar of fireflies inside the craft. But there was enough for them to see and work the controls; that much was clear.

Mercy stood, paralyzed by the wind and the nearness of the danger, in the spot between the passenger car and the mystery car, and wept from the awful sting of the rushing air and the engine fumes. She gripped the rail above the passenger car’s front coupler until her fingers were numb and her knuckles were as white as if they’d succumbed to frost.

The three-​wheeler bobbed into view again, and the men within it came close enough that she could see their black eyeholes seeing her—an easy target between the cars—and conferring. It suddenly occurred to her, They could shoot me. They might shoot me. My own fellows might kill me, and never even know. . . .

But the Dreadnought was on watch, and whether or not the three-​wheeler had intended to take the easy shot, it did not, for a searing stripe of bullets went scorching along the earth, the live ammunition throwing up sparks and small explosions of light at the edge of the Rebels’ line of attack. Off to Mercy’s right, out of her line of sight on the other side of the train, something flew into bits with a crash and a ball of fire that temporarily warmed her, even as it horrified her. One of the three-​wheelers was down, most definitely.

Off to the left, the three-​wheeler that had been very near had gone someplace she couldn’t see. She wanted to believe they’d seen she was a woman and had opted to leave her be; but she suspected it was more a fear of the engine, and its guns, and the men in the next car up, who defended the train with the ferocity of lions.

Reaching the mystery car required a literal leap of faith, or at least a few steps of contrition.

Knowing that she’d never get a peaceful moment to make the rushing jump to the other car, Mercy counted to three and threw herself at the other platform, which had not been designed for passengers, and was therefore without the rails, gates, and other safety measures that made crossing these tiny, terrible bridges more manageable on the rest of the train. She wavered as she landed, but caught herself by tangling her hands into the rungs of a ladder that had been welded into place against the car’s body. Thusly braced, she used her other hand to grab the latch and jiggle it open.

The door flapped outward into her face, but she dodged it, and swung herself around it, and drew it shut behind her. This motion took fewer than three seconds, and it landed her in the midst of a shuttered car so dark that she could see her own feet only with the aid of a lantern held close to the floor, back in the corner.

She said, “Captain?” since she didn’t see him at first. Then she spotted him against the wall, seated, with a rag of some sort held up against his head.

Fenwick Durboraw was lying beside him.

She crouched down low and forced herself to ignore the whistle of ammunition shrieking only feet, or sometimes only inches, above her head. Flinging herself down into the corner, she took the lantern and turned to Durboraw first, since he wasn’t moving.

With a flutter and a racket accompanied by renewed firepower from outside, the rear door opened and a young porter came in carrying two more torches and a box of matches. He said, “I’m real sorry, sirs. Real sorry it took so long.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Captain MacGruder, his words only slightly muffled by the rag that hung down over his face. He gestured for the man and for the lights, and the colored man brought them forward, setting one beside Mercy and handing the other to the captain.

Then the captain said, “I think we’re too late for Fenwick. If he isn’t dead yet, he won’t last long.”

Mercy held the first lamp over him and saw no sign of breathing or motion. She opened one of his eyelids and brought the light close, but the pupils didn’t contract, and when she turned his head to better feel his pulse, blood came dribbling out of his nose. “What happened to him?” she asked.

“Percussion bombs. Small models, anyway. They’re launching them from those meat-​baskets,” he said. “That’s why we threw up the screens, to bounce them back.”

She looked up and saw them, silhouetted against the sky from her position down on the floor. They were scarcely any darker, and they looked like old coal screens, which is what they probably were. “But one got through?”

“One got through. He threw himself down on it; look.” The captain pointed at the soldier’s chest, where the wool overcoat was discolored and strangely frayed, as if he’d caught a cannonball to the belly. “Those things, they tear you up on the inside.”

Before she could stop herself, she murmured, “And they’re called ‘clappers,’ ain’t that right?”

He took a moment to answer her. Finally he said, “That’s what the Rebs call them, yes.”

Fenwick Durboraw let out a soft, slow breath, and his chest sank beneath Mercy’s hand. It didn’t rise again. She said, “He’s gone, sure enough. Now let me get a look at you.”

The captain objected, but she pointed at the porter and said, “You there, hold up the light so I can see.” Her authority in this world was limited and uncertain, but she knew when to wield it. She forced the captain’s rag-​filled hand away from his face. At first she saw nothing but blood, sluicing down the side of his head from a deep, long scratch with very sharp edges. She said, “Shrapnel upside the head, Captain. Hold still and let me clean it out.”

He did as she told him, wincing against the touch of the rags, which were so damp with his own blood that they scarcely did any good.

She noticed this herself, said, “Hold on. I’ve got something in my bag,” then pulled out a tincture solution and dabbed it on a cloth before giving up and pouring it a drizzle at a time over the wound. “Holy hell, Captain. I’ve got a shining look at your skull, I don’t mind saying. You need a good stitching, and sooner rather than later. Where’s the doctor?” she asked suddenly, only just aware of his absence.

“Back car; at the caboose, or behind it,” he said. “Purdue commandeered him before I had a chance to, goddamn his soul indefinitely.”

“Doesn’t matter, I guess.” She opened her satchel again. “If he was here, he’d just tell me to do it, anyway,” she said casually as she reached for the needles and thread she kept stashed inside. She extracted a curved needle and a spool of thread that was sturdy enough to stitch a couch.

Despite the percussion bombs bouncing off the windows and the occasional ping of a bullet slamming against the car’s armored hull, Captain MacGruder’s eyes widened at the needle and ignored everything else. “You’re going to use that . . .”

“On your head, yes. I’m going to sew your scalp together, and it isn’t going to feel good at all, but you’ll thank me for it later. Now lie down like a man and put your head on my lap.”

“I beg your—”

“I’m not asking for your permission. Do what I tell you, and I’ll try to keep your head from splitting open. You don’t want your face sliding off your bones, do you?”

He paused. “It could do that?”

“Like warm butter off a pan bottom,” she fibbed.

He descended from a sitting position to a lying one, and wiggled weakly until his head was lying atop her thigh, as directed.

“You there.” She indicated the porter again. “What’s your name?”

He said, “Jasper. Jasper Nichols.”

“Pleased to meet you, Jasper Nichols. I’m going to need you to keep holding that, as steady as you can. Bring it near. Closer. I’m not going to bite you, and neither is he.” And to the captain, she said, “Close your eyes, if that makes it easier. I ain’t going to lie, this is going to hurt. But I think you can take it.”

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