Dreadnought Page 6

“Yes ma’am, very serious. The stamp on the outside says it came from Tacoma, out in Washington—not the one next door, but the western territory. Or that’s where the message started, anyhow. I don’t know too well how the telegraph works.”

“Me either,” she confessed. “But I don’t know anybody in Washington.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.” She turned the envelope over in her hand, still unwilling to open it, reading the stamped mark that declared the station in Tacoma where the message had been composed.

“You . . . you going to open it?” Paul Forks asked, then seemed to think the better of it. “Never mind, it’s no business of mine. I’ll leave you alone,” he said, and turned to go.

She stopped him by saying, “No, it’s all right.” A laundry boy bustled past her, prompting her to add, “Let me get out of the hallway, here. No sense in blocking up the main thoroughfare.” She carried the envelope to the back scullery stairs, where no one was coming or going at that particular moment.

Paul Forks followed her there, and sat down beside her with the stiff effort of a man who hadn’t yet learned how to work around his permanent injuries. He was careful to keep a respectful distance, but the naked curiosity in his face might’ve been mirrored in her own, if she hadn’t been so fiercely tired.

“Washington,” she said aloud to the paper as she extracted it from the light brown envelope and unfolded it. “What’s so important out in Washington that I need to hear about it?”

“Read it,” he encouraged her. Paul Forks couldn’t read, but he liked to watch other people do it, and he liked to hear the results. “Tell me what it says.”

“It says,” she declared, but her eyes scanned ahead, and she didn’t say anything else. Not right away.

“Go on.”

“It says,” she tried again, then stopped herself. “It’s my . . . my daddy.”

Paul frowned thoughtfully. “I thought your kin came from Waterford?”

She gave a half nod that ended in a shrug. Her eyes never peeled themselves off the paper, but she said, “I was born there, and my momma and father live there now, working a farm that’s mostly dairy.”

Paul might’ve been illiterate, but he wasn’t stupid. “Father? Not your real pa, then?”

Though she didn’t owe him any explanation, she felt like talking, so she said, “My daddy ran off when I was little. Went West, with his brother and my cousin, looking for gold in Alaska—or that was the plan as I heard it. For a while he sent letters. But when I was about seven years old, the letters just . . . stopped.”

“You think something happened to him?”

“That’s what we always figured. Except, it was strange.” Her voice ran out of steam as she read and reread the telegram.

“What was strange?” Paul prompted.

“One day Aunt Betty got a box in the post, full of Uncle Asa’s things, and Leander’s things, too. Leander was my cousin,” she clarified. “And there was some money in there—not a lot, but some. There was also a note inside from somebody they didn’t know, but it said Asa and Leander’d died on the frontier, of cholera or something. Anyway, when I was about ten, the justice of the peace said that my momma wasn’t married anymore on account of desertion, and she could marry Wilfred. He’s been my father ever since. So I don’t know . . . I don’t know what this means.”

The tone of her voice changed as she quit relating ancient history and began to read aloud from the sheet of paper, including all the stops.

“To Vinita May Swakhammer stop. Your father Jeremiah Granville Swakhammer has suffered an accident stop. His life hangs by a thread stop. He wants you to come to Tacoma in the Washington territory stop. Please send word if you can make it stop. Sheriff Wilkes can meet you at station and bring you north to Seattle where he lies gravely wounded stop.”

The letter sagged in her hands until it rested atop her knees.

“Is that all?” Paul asked.

“That’s all.” She stared at the letter, then looked up at Paul. “And all this time, I figured he was dead.”

“It looks like he ain’t.”

“That’s what it looks like, yeah,” she agreed. And she didn’t know how to feel about it.

“What’re you going to do?”

She didn’t shrug, and didn’t shake her head. “I don’t know. He left me and Momma. He left us, and he never sent for us like he said he would. We waited all that time, and he never sent.”

They sat in silence a few seconds, until Paul Forks said, “He’s sending for you now.”

“A little late.”

“Better late than never?” he tried. He leaned back and braced against the stairwell in order to help push himself back to a standing position. “Sounds like he might be dying.”

“Maybe,” she agreed. “But I’m not sure if I give a damn. He left us . . . Jesus, fifteen, sixteen years ago. That son of a bitch,” she mumbled, and then she said it louder. “That son of a bitch! All this time, he’s been out West just fine, just like he said he was going to be. And all that time, we sat at home and wondered, and worried, and finally we just gave right up!”

“He might’ve had his reasons,” Paul said, awkward as he stood there, uneven on his one real foot and one false one, and unsure exactly who he was defending.

Glaring down at the paper, she said, “Oh, I’m real sure he had his reasons. There are about a million reasons to leave a woman and a little girl behind and start a new life someplace else. I guess he just picked one.”

He said quickly, “Don’t you want to hear it?”

“Why would I want to hear it?” She wasn’t quite shouting, but she was warming inside, like a furnace catching its coals. The heat spread up from her belly to her chest, and flushed up her throat to her cheeks. “A million reasons, goddamn him, and I don’t need to hear even one of them!”

“Because you don’t care?”

“Damn right, because I don’t care!” Except that she was shouting now, and nearly on fire with anger, or sorrow, or some other consequence of her tumultuous week. “Let him die out there, if that’s where he wanted to be all this time!”

Paul Forks held out his hands, trying to halt her, or just defend himself—even though it wasn’t his fight, and he wasn’t the man with whom she was so furious. “Maybe he’s where he wants to be, or maybe he’s just where he ended up. Either way, he wants to see his little girl.”

Mercy gave him a look like she’d kill him if he blinked, but he blinked anyway. And he continued: “Someday, you’ll wish you’d gone. If you don’t do it now, like as not, you’ll never get another chance—and then you really will spend the rest of your life wondering. When you could’ve just . . . asked.”

She clenched the telegram in her fist, crumpling the paper. “It won’t be as simple as that,” she said. “If he was dying when this was sent, he’s probably dead by now.”

He fidgeted. “You don’t know that for sure.”

“It’d take weeks to make the trip. A month or more, I bet. You know as well as I do what the train lines are like these days. Everyone talks about transcontinental dirigible paths, but nobody’s making it happen. Maybe I could hop, skip, and jump it by air—but that’d take even longer than going by train. Forget it,” she said, stuffing the wad of paper into her apron pocket.

Paul Forks stepped out of the stairwell and shook his head, “Yes ma’am. I’ll forget it. And I’m sorry, it wasn’t my place to bother you. It’s only . . .”

“It’s only what?”

“It’s only . . . when I took that hit on the field, and when they brought me here . . . I sent for my wife and my boy. Neither one of them came. All I got was a message that my boy had died of consumption six months after I went to war, and my wife went a few weeks behind him.”

She said, “I . . . Paul. I’m real sorry.”

He shifted uncomfortably in his clothes. “Anyway, that’s why I stayed on here. Nothing to go home to. But I don’t mean to pry. It just hurts like all get-​out when you think you’re meeting your Maker, and there’s no one there to send you off.”

With his left hand, the whole one, he touched her shoulder in a friendly way. And he left her alone there, in the stairwell with the message she couldn’t stand to read again, and no idea how she was going to answer it.

Still pondering, she went back up to her bunk, and opened her cases to retrieve the stationery she’d taken from Captain Sally’s stash down in the hospital office. Not knowing what else to do, or what else to think about, she sat on the edge of the bed and started writing.

Mercy’s handwriting wasn’t any good, because she’d never been schooled long enough to make it smooth, but it was legible. And it said:

Dear Mrs. Henry,

My name is Vinita Lynch and I am a nurse at the Robertson Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. I am very sorry to tell you that your son, Gilbert Henry, died this afternoon of February 13, 1879. He was a good soldier and a nice man, and he made jokes while we tried to save him. He had been wounded bad but he died peaceful. I stayed with him until he was gone. He spoke fondly of you and his brother. His last thoughts were of home.

When she was finished, she sealed it up and set it on the nightstand beside her bed, to be mailed on Monday, when the post came.


Mercy Lynch told Sally, “Thank you. For everything.”

She’d already said the rest of her good-​byes, though they’d been few: to the other nurses, a couple of the doctors, and to Paul Forks, who’d worked beside her for six months and would have guessed why she was leaving, regardless.

No one had mentioned her departure to any of the patients. It was better not to, she’d decided. She’d seen other women leave before, going down the rows and receiving impassioned pleas, promises of future remembrance, and the occasional marriage proposal; and she wasn’t interested in any of it. She’d learned, by watching other employees come and go, that it was best to simply leave at the ordinary time, and fail to return.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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