Dreadnought Page 43

“I’m not going to close my eyes.”

“Well, that’s up to you,” she said. And while the porter Jasper Nichols held the lantern above as steady as humanly possible, given the motion of the train and the kickback from the Dreadnought’s weapons, she talked to them both. “Jasper, I figured all you porters were walled up tight in one of the service sections. I’m a little surprised to see you up front. Whatever they’re paying you, I expect it doesn’t cover military duty.”

He kept his eyes on the captain’s skin, which was steadily being drawn together and forming a squishing, bloody seam. “Maybe not, ma’am. But I’m from Alabama,” he said, as if it explained everything.

It explained enough for Mercy to ask, “Why didn’t you enlist?”

Without showing her, he said, “I’m missing a foot. Got it cut off when I was small, for disobeying.”

She shook her head slowly, trying to concentrate despite the incessant mechanical movement. “That ain’t right.”

“Lots ain’t right,” he said. “Staying back in the ’boose wouldn’t be right either, not when these men got to have some light.”

“Good call,” she told him, temporarily holding the bloody needle in her mouth as she estimated the best way to stitch a particularly uneven stretch of wound. “And I, for one, am glad you made it. What about the men at the other end of the train?”

“My cousin Cole Byron is taking care of them. We didn’t put no lights back on in the passenger cars, though.”

She said, “That’s fine. Leave ’em dark. The folks inside’ll be scared, but I bet they’ll be safer that way, with nothing to draw attention to them.”

The captain mumbled, “They have nothing to gain by going after the passenger cars.”

And Mercy replied, “Yes, I believe you and I very recently had a conversation on that subject.”

Continuing like he hadn’t heard her, he said, “I don’t know what they want from the caboose. What would they want with dead bodies?”

“But you do know what they want with these front cars, don’t you?”

He opened his eyes, which he’d closed after all, once she’d gotten started. He said quietly, “Look around you, woman. Don’t you see why their artillery isn’t getting through? Except for a little shrapnel and that one percussion bomb . . .” His voice trailed off, then recuperated. “It’s not the armor outside that keeps us safe in here.”

She paused her stitching long enough to raise her head, and was startled by her own obliviousness. She hadn’t noticed, in the wild dance of flinging herself into the darkened car; and she hadn’t seen, even now that there were three lanterns casting shadows from corner to corner . . . but how could she have missed it?

From floor to window, and stacked all along the central aisle, the mystery car that trailed behind the Dreadnought was packed with bars of gold.


Under her breath, so softly that only the captain and the porter could hear her, Mercy said, “Well, now. I did not see that coming. The Union’s moving all her money out West? What kind of a crock is that?”

She tied off the last bit of Captain MacGruder’s scalp with a knot. Rather than root around for her scissors, she leaned down and bit off the excess thread. And when her mouth was only inches from his ear she said, “So that’s what the Rebs want with the train.”

He struggled to sit up, wobbled, and found his way upright. “Looks that way. Though how they found out about it, I can’t reckon.”

“And what about the rear car? What do they want with the noble dead?” she asked. She was almost sarcastic, but the din of bullets beating against the car walls stripped all the subtext out of everyone’s words.

“I honestly haven’t the foggiest.”

“Is there more gold back there?” she asked, wiping off her hands and repacking her satchel.

“Not as far as I know,” he swore. And he continued, “But they might not know that; and the truth is, I wonder. Malverne Purdue isn’t under my command,” he said sourly. “The rear compartment is his domain, as decreed by the United States Army. I’ve been told to mind my own compartment and leave that crooked scientist to his.”

Mercy rose up to a kneeling position, her knees popping from having sat too long in a strange tangle with the captain’s head atop her lap. This put their eyes at nearly on the same level, for he again leaned on the wall, seated in a loose Indian style. “You don’t even know, do you—if there are really bodies back there?”

He said, unsteadily, “I believe there are bodies.”

“Then there could be more gold.”

The captain shook his head. “I saw the men loading the caskets, and they didn’t seem unnaturally heavy. But they were . . . they were sealed. Anyway—” He reached for his hat, which was streaked with a bloody tear. He put it back on with a grimace, and when he spoke again, he sounded stronger. “Purdue’s the only man on board this train who knows what’s really back there. And unless the Rebs manage to board us against our will, that’ll remain the case until we reach Boise.”

“Why Boise? I thought those bodies were going all the way to Tacoma.”

“So did I, but no one ever tells me anything until the last minute. It turns out they’re going to be processed at the army post in Idaho, whatever that means.”

Mercy was quiet for a moment. They faced each other that way while the men inside the car fired their rifles loudly and repeatedly. The violent noises were enough to make their ears ring.

She said, “That don’t make any sense, not if they’re just dead boys being sent home. Maybe the Rebs know something we don’t.”

“Ma’am,” he said, “If the Rebs know something about this train that I don’t, I’m going to take that right personal.”

She climbed to her feet. The porter Jasper Nichols was already standing, his posture off-​kilter due to his false foot. He was peering up through the slits of light where the windows were letting in moonlight, starlight, and flashes of artillery fire. She asked him, “How are we doing?”

He started to reply, but a particularly loud report from the Dreadnought’s defense system shook the whole train like the roll of a cracked whip snapping from handle to tip. When it had subsided, he said, “I think we’re fending ’em off.”

But another round of jagged gunshots landed in a bounding roll along the side of the car, as if to contradict him.

Morris Comstock was nearest to Mercy, reloading his repeater with shaking hands. This time she asked him, since he’d been looking outside to aim and fire and might have a better idea about what was going on. “Mr. Comstock, are they retreating? Are they still leaving the passenger cars alone?”

He said, “I don’t know,” as he slipped another rimfire cartridge into place. “It looks like they’re concentrating on us, but I can’t see any farther than about two cars back.” Then he double-​checked his gun, climbed on top of one of the gold-​filled crates, and reassumed his position. He said to his commanding officer, “Captain, it might be worth sending someone to check.”

“Have we had any word from the back of the train?” Captain MacGruder asked.

“No sir. Not yet. Not unless the porter—”

Jasper Nichols said, “My cousin ain’t sent word, so maybe they’re doing all right back there.”

“Or maybe they’re so hard up for help, they can’t ask for it. Cyrus?” he called to the private first class.

“Yes sir?”

“You in one piece?”

“Yes sir.”

The captain said, “Make a dash back to the rear, and let me know what’s going on there. Porter, do you mind going with him?”

“No sir, I don’t.”

“He might need a light, or something, and I reckon you know the train better than we do. Mrs. Lynch, you go with them, too.”


“Yes, you,” he ordered, not quite crossly but impatiently. “Since we’ve got ourselves all reinforced with the—with the contents of this car, we’ve got better plating than the folks in the rear. It’d take antiaircraft projectiles to put a dent in this car, or cannon of a heavier weight than those meat-​baskets will carry. Go make sure the doctor doesn’t need any help, and check up on the passengers, while you’re at it.”

She asked, “Why is it my job to watch the passengers?”

“Because they trust you more than they trust us. They’re willing to do what you tell them, anyway, and if they hear it from a soldier, maybe it frightens them more than if they hear it from a nice young woman. Just make sure they’re staying low and not doing anything stupid.”

“Don’t have much faith in civilians, do you now?”

“I don’t have much faith in people. But right now, I trust you, and Cyrus, and that-​there porter to make your way to the rear of this train and bring me back word about what’s going on.”

He used the interior wall as a brace to shove himself up to a standing position, where he swooned, but held himself upright even against the jostling shove of the train’s rocking. As Mercy, Cyrus, and Jasper gathered at the door, ready to take on the next cars, the captain held up his hand and said, “Private First Class!”

“Yes sir?”

“If Purdue is holed up in that back car, you force your way in there, you hear me? Don’t you let him pull rank, because he doesn’t have one. Tell him I sent you as reinforcements, will you? The time might be coming where I damn well need to know what he’s got back there.”

“Yes sir, I’ll do that,” Cyrus replied with a strange gleam in his eye, like he’d just been ordered to do the thing he wanted most in the whole wide world.

“Good. Carry on,” he said, giving them a half wave that could’ve been a dismissive gesture, but was more likely an attempt to balance while maintaining a standing position.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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