Dreadnought Page 44

Jasper Nichols took the lead and one of the lanterns, but he shuttered it before opening the door. Cyrus Berry asked him, “What are you doing—trying to get us killed? We need to see, crossing that gap!”

The porter replied, “Just the opposite of that, sir. It’s dark as hell out there, and they’ll shoot if they see a light. You don’t want them to see you, do you?” he asked.

Cyrus looked like he wanted to argue, which Mercy thought was weird. But Jasper Nichols continued, saying, “It’s only a couple of steps, and I’ll take ’em first, and help you two come over. It won’t take a second, if we do it careful.”

“He’s right,” Mercy hissed. “If we’re lucky, they won’t even see us opening and shutting the doors. Now, come on.”

Cyrus took third place in line and the porter opened the door, only to be greeted with a frigid flapping noise and a gust of wind that blew papers around in the compartment like a storm. The captain said, “Goddammit! Who opened that box?” And someone else answered, “Didn’t mean to, Captain! Just trying to stand on it!”

Mercy waved her hands to brush the papers away from her face and caught one in the process. She tried to throw it away, but the inrushing air forced it against her fingers, so she wadded it up and stuffed it into her apron pocket. “Let’s go, fellows,” she said, and then she realized that Jasper Nichols was already across the gap, and opening the other door.

Both doors opened out, so that when they were both open, they offered a small measure of protective cover against anyone scanning the area for something to shoot. But when Mercy put her hands on the door to hold it as she passed, she felt how thin it was, and she imagined that a determined enough bullet would breeze through it as easy as a curtain.

But it was dark—devilishly dark. She wished she hadn’t left her cloak in her own compartment, even though it would’ve weighed her down. Night gave the February wind a keener edge, without the sun to dull its damage. And this wind between the cars was a terror, a banshee, a weapon of its own. The nurse stuck out her feet, reached out her hand for the next rail over, and was grasped instead by the porter, who braced her as she swung the rest of the way across. He helped her to a firmer spot, all but pushed her through the open door, and reached out his hand again to take the private first class in the same manner.

The doors slapped shut, sealing all three of them into the bleak, tubular interior of the next car. They stood somewhat dazed, rattled, and ruffled in the empty car, but then the porter rallied them.

“Stay low!” he said.

“They haven’t shot at any of the passengers yet, have they?” Mercy asked.

Jasper Nichols said, “Not as far as I know, but that don’t mean they won’t start. And anyway, if they’re paying any attention, they know we’ve evacuated this car, and the last one. If they see us moving around in here, they may figure we’re up to no good.”

Moving forward in single file, in a crouch that was graceful for no one, the three unlikely travelers swiftly found the end of that first passenger car and repeated their half-​blind charge across the gap until they were all safely inside the second passenger car.

There, dozens of people—far more than there ought to be—were barricaded, stuffed behind their luggage and between the sleeper compartments, crammed against the floor and alongside the storage bays. All of them were silent as death, and all of them watched with eyes that were too horror-​struck to blink. These shiny eyes flickered in the muted rays of the shuttered lantern, watching like foxes from burrows, while the hounds barked in circles outside.

As a matter of professional duty, Mercy asked, in a hard whisper that only just carried above the sounds of the small war beyond the car, “Is everybody all right in here? Does anyone need any help with anything?”

No one answered, so she said, “Good. Y’all stay put and stay low. You’re doing it just right. Nobody make a peep, you hear?”

They must have heard, because no one did make a peep, even in polite response.

The three travelers received the same response through the next few cars, until it felt to Mercy like some strange circle of hell—where the floor never stopped moving, the soldiers never stopped shooting, and she was never safe standing up straight. Her back hurt from all the hunkering, and her forearms and elbows took many a hard knock from her passage in the dark, but eventually they reached the last car that ought to be filled with passengers, the sixth sleeper car, and encountered Jasper Nichols’s cousin and fellow porter, Cole Byron. The two men nearly knocked heads as they stayed low in the aisle, and the conversation that followed told Mercy little of practical value except that the rearmost passenger car had not been wholly evacuated, which Mercy blamed squarely on Theodora Clay—of whom she’d seen no sign.

Cyrus Berry said, “One more car, then,” and convinced Jasper Nichols to lend him the lantern long enough to look. “You stay here,” he said to the nurse and to the porter, neither of whom took kindly to the command. But a little girl underneath a fortress of suitcases began to cry about her nose, and the child’s mother asked if Mercy would please come take a look.

She sighed and agreed, even though she was suddenly very curious about what precisely was going on in the next car over, since the warfare sounded much louder from where she crouched in the aisle than it had over in the first mystery car. She hesitated before answering the girl’s mother, but Cyrus said, “Ma’am, if I need you, I’ll call for you,” and dashed out the door.

As soon as the soldier was gone, Cole Byron told his cousin, “Something strange is up in that car, man. That crazy Union fellow, the one who ain’t the soldier, you know the one I mean?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“He’s called up a bunch of men from the train, including that big ol’ Texian, and he’s ordering them around, like he’s a man who can tell ’em what to do.”

This answered Mercy’s other question when it came to the passengers: she hadn’t seen Horatio Korman yet, either, and she wondered what he was doing. She was about to ask Cole Byron for details when the man added, “Except for that Texian—he ain’t going to shoot no Rebs, but I think he might shoot hisself a Union man or two if he gets half a chance. That’s why they done took away his guns.”

It made sense, of course, but Mercy didn’t like it. She felt umbrage in the ranger’s behalf and imagined him holed up in that last passenger car, stripped of his weaponry and seething. Surely he was seething. She couldn’t imagine him in any other state.

She did talk to the little girl in the suitcases, and though she had virtually no light to see by, she ascertained by the wet, dark stains down the girl’s shirt that she’d bloodied her nose at some point in the melee.

Her mother said, “One of the cases fell down and hit her in the face. Is she all right?”

Examining by feel, Mercy fiddled with the crying child’s features until she could declare, “I don’t think it’s broken, but I can’t see to save my life.”

“Oh, God,” said the mother, aghast.

“No, no, it’s not the end of the world even if it’s busted,” Mercy assured her. “She’s a little thing still, and a doctor can set it right again. Or I could set it right, if I could see worth a damn,” she muttered. “But she’ll survive, don’t worry. She’s made a mess, that’s all. You got a rag or something?”

“A handkerchief?”

“That’ll work.” Mercy took it, and clamped it gently on the child’s nose. “You’re still bleeding some, aren’t you, sweetheart?” she asked the child.

The girl tried to nod, even as the cloth was pressed up against her face. The nurse felt this gesture and said, “That’s all right, it’ll stop soon enough. Like I told your momma, it’s not the end of the world, and you’ll be fine. Just hold this like this,” she demonstrated, and tipped the child’s chin up. “And hold your face up, and back. It’ll quit. Don’t worry.”

An ominous, exceedingly close round of gunshots blasted from very nearby within the train. A few people let out soft screams, or attempted to muffle them, and everyone ducked down lower. The child tried to lean against Mercy’s arm for a hug, but the nurse pushed her gently back to her mother’s arms and scooted out to the edge of the aisle. The two porters had gone back to the front of the car and were conversing in low tones. Even they had been startled into silence at the terrible proximity of the bullets.

“What’s going on in there?” she asked of no one in particular.

She was about to grab the door handle and see for herself when it burst open and Horatio Korman came barreling through, followed by the white-​faced doctor Stinchcomb, who appeared to be injured or ill. He slammed the door behind himself. It looked like he would’ve locked it if he could, but he couldn’t see any better than anyone else.

“Crazy goddamn bluebacks!” the ranger swore.

The doctor said, “You must understand, I had no idea—”

“No one gives half a two-​ounce sparrow shit if you had any idea. This is madness. This is . . . this is . . .” He picked another word. “This is practically mutiny, and you know it same as I do!”

“Mr. Korman! Dr. Stinchcomb!” Mercy hissed from the floor. “Get down, for God’s sake!”

Both men dropped like stones, though Korman kept one eye on the rear door as if he expected it to open at any moment. “Mrs. Lynch, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Where’s Cyrus Berry? Did he make it back yet?”

“Who, the dumb little private?”

“He’s perfectly pleasant, you oaf. Is he still back there?”

The ranger said, “Yes, he’s back there, and that’s where he’ll stay. That lunatic Malverne Purdue shot him dead, not two minutes ago. Surely you must’ve heard it!”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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