Dreadnought Page 54

“It’s madness!” Mrs. Butterfield declared. “Where will all of us sleep?”

To which the Texian said, “Out in the snow, with the coyotes and the mountain lions—if we don’t keep this train ahead of that one,” and he pointed out the window.

The old woman gasped like she might faint, and Theodora Clay stepped up and slapped the ranger across the face. “How dare you!” she exclaimed, not really asking a question but making an accusation. “Trying to frighten an elderly lady like that!”

“I’ll frighten her and worse, if it gets her out of my way,” he said, unmoved and apparently unstartled by the prim but sharp attack. “Now look out that window and tell me you think we’re going to beat them through Provo.”

As he said it, the pass loomed up and swallowed the train, car by car in quick succession. The shadows from its immense walls were cut sharply up, and as high as the sky to the right . . . and up to the clouds on the left, where the Shenandoah was not gaining as swiftly as before, but remained close on their tail.

“Everything that can go, is going,” the captain chimed in. “Now make room.”

Though three passenger cars had made for a fairly spacious arrangement for two dozen military men and half that number of civilians (plus the conductor, rail men, and assorted porters), reducing that number down to two cars made for cramped quarters, and Mrs. Butterfield had a point: only one of these cars was a proper sleeper. Mercy couldn’t imagine anyone being so narrowly focused as to be worried about that fact right this second; but a glance at the matron, with her sour face and her arms crossed and clenched around her bosoms, told the nurse that she still had a whole lot to learn about people.

With much more shouting, ordering, and cramming of people up and forward—and into the next car up, where there was temporarily more room—the Dreadnought shed the third passenger car as smoothly and strangely as the previous two and picked up speed.

Mrs. Butterfield complained as she looked out the back window, “Soon you’ll have the lot of us sleeping in the coal car.”

Horatio Korman said, “No ma’am—just you.” Then he immediately returned his attention to something the captain was saying, and to the window beyond the captain’s shoulder, where the Shenandoah was drawing up nearer, ever nearer, clawing up to the Dreadnought’s pace by feet—not by great leaping yards, not anymore, but still coming. The ranger said, “It’s not a bad idea, actually.”

Captain MacGruder said, “Are you kidding me?”

“No, I’m not. And I’m not just talking about her. I think we could fit the lot of them into that car just past the fuel car. The one with the special armor inside,” he said, flashing a meaningful look at the captain.

Mercy caught it, too. She said, “Yes, Captain. There’s only—” She did a quick count. “Eight civilians—or ten if you count the inspectors, but I don’t think you should. I don’t know about Mr. Portilla, but Mr. Galeano looks like he knows his way around a gunfight, and he has his own pistol.”

“Nine, if we count you,” he pointed out.

“So count me. You might need me, and there’s nobody else, if anybody gets hurt. But you can stack these eight folks up inside the—” She almost said the gold car, but stopped just in time. “The car up there. They’ll be safer there than anyplace else. Who cares if they see what it’s carrying?”

This perked ears all around, and loudly voiced questions of, “What’s it carrying?”

The ranger said, “There ain’t much time. Get them out of the way, and the rest of y’all can fight your war like civilized killers.”

Mercy almost expected MacGruder to keep fighting, but he decided in a snap, “Fine. Do it. Comstock, Tankersly, Howson—get these folks up to that car. You know the one.”

“What? Now where are we going?” Theodora Clay demanded.

“Someplace safe,” Mercy said. “Safer, anyhow. Just go. Take your aunt and hunker down.”

“I think not.”

“Think whatever you want, but would you at least get Mrs. Butterfield up front? I doubt she’ll let anyone else take her.”

Miss Clay hesitated, but she flashed a glance out the window at the onrushing train, and recognized the truth of their words. “Fine. But I’m coming right back.”

Hastily the handful of leftover civilians was loaded, shoved, and urgently led to the front of the train, where the former car of mystery was waiting. It had been cleared out by the time they arrived, so that something like an aisle was open in the middle of the floor. Seeing the arrangement as she helped with the last of the evacuation, Mercy was glad for the quick improvisation of the soldiers.

Morris Comstock asked her, “Are you coming?”

She realized she and Miss Clay were the last civilians there. “Yes,” she said.

Miss Clay said, “I’m coming, too.”

But Mercy beat her to the door and slammed it shut, closing herself and Comstock out onto the coupler passageway. She drew a bar down and fixed it, effectively locking the whole group into the car. She took a deep breath, turned to the private first class, and said, “I hope I’m doing the right thing.”

Morris Comstock looked at the irate face of Theodora Clay, her gloved hands beating against the window as she screamed, and he said, “The best thing that can be done, I expect. They’ll be safe in there,” he added, speaking loudly so that he’d be heard over the wind.

“I hope.”

“If they aren’t, there’s not much we’ll be able to do for them, anyway.”

Together, as if they’d had the same idea at the very same instant, they each gripped the vibrating iron rail and leaned out to see how close the front of the other train was. It was staring straight ahead up the track, coming right for them.

The far side of the pass was a cliff as cutting and certain as the one to their immediate right—so close that, sometimes, Mercy was quite positive, she could’ve reached out a hand and dragged it along the icy boulders if she wanted to lose a few fingers. But the sides of this astonishing pass rose up so high that they shut out the sun and cast the whole man-​made valley into shadow, and through the veil of this shadow the face of the Shenandoah was an angry thing. She could make out its round front with the streamlined pilot piece and its billowing stacks. And when a faint curve of the track allowed for something less than a head-​on view, she could also see one side of the pistons, which pumped the thing faster, harder, and with greater efficiency than the engine that drew her own train forward.

Morris Comstock said, “This is going to be bad,” as if Mercy didn’t already know it.

“Hurry,” she said, opening the next door and letting them both back into the first passenger car.

Morris Comstock spotted Lieutenant Hobbes and said, “Sir, the civilians are secured in the forward car,” with a snappy salute.

“Glad to hear it. You—” He pointed at Mercy. “—the captain wants you back in the next car.”

“I’m going,” she told him, pushing sideways past Morris and shuffling through the narrow aisle, alongside the rows of men setting up for trouble—lining up by the windows, lowering them as far as they’d go, and breaking them out if they’d frozen shut. They ducked down low behind the passenger car’s protective steel walls and waited for someone over there, on the other track, sidling up close, to fire the first shot.

In the second car, Mercy seized her poor, battered satchel and slung it across her chest, where it bumped against the gunbelt she’d been wearing all morning. Until the bag bounced and reminded her, she’d completely forgotten about it. But whom was she going to shoot? The Rebels, if they got close enough? No, of course not. No sooner than Horatio Korman would’ve shot at them. The Union lads on the train? No, not them either.

But given the havoc and the horror of the moment, being dragged along a track at impossible speeds, and chased and harried around every bend and up every craggy plateau, she wore them. They were loaded, but they remained unfired for the time being.

“Captain MacGruder?” she called, not seeing him immediately.

He stood up from behind one of the sleeper compartments, where he’d been hovering over Malverne Purdue. “Over here, Mrs. Lynch. Tell me, do you think you can fix him?”

“Jesus couldn’t fix him,” she said under her breath. “And I don’t know if I can patch him up, if that’s what you’re asking. I wonder why Ranger Korman didn’t just go for the heart.”

“There’s no telling. Or, I don’t know.” The captain shrugged, using his foot to nudge at Purdue’s limp leg. “He moved real sudden with that gun. The ranger’s good, but there were two men to shoot. In all fairness, the bastards both went down.”

Mercy said, “I’ll make him comfortable. That’s all I can do.”

“I didn’t ask you to make him comfortable. Put him on a bed of nails if we’ve got one. But I’d like to see him survive long enough to explain himself.”

“I’ve done my best,” she said. The captain went away, back to the front lines on the southern side of the train, where the windows were all open now—wind pouring through them, blowing everything that wasn’t nailed down all over the place. And snow came inside with the wind: it had begun as a faint, spitting bluster of tiny shards of ice, but it was becoming something denser, something with more volume and sting when it slapped against faces and into eyes.

Convinced there was nothing more she could do for the unconscious Purdue, she left him, drew the curtain to close him into the compartment, and stood up so she could see what was going on. It was almost enough to make her want to dive back inside and join the scientist in a defensive huddle.

The Shenandoah was so close she could see it now, its engine straining and speeding along, the pistons churning and pumping. She could also see faces—that’s how close it had come—faint but definite, lining the windows in a mirror of the men on the Dreadnought. Men also dashed to and fro along the Rebel engine and its scant number of cars, climbing with the certainty of sailors on masts or cats along cupboard shelves. It was strange and awful, the feeling of pride combined with horror Mercy felt as she kept her eyes on them, tracking one after another like ants on a hill.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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