Dreadnought Page 64

“Come on . . . ,” Mercy said under her breath. Then, as one man stumbled, fell, and was shortly covered by the monstrous creatures, she shouted it. “Come on!” she ordered the remaining four. “Come on, goddamn you, come on! You’re almost here!”

Her hood was blown back and full of filthy snow, and her hands were absolutely senseless. They could’ve frozen to the edge of the roof, for all she knew, and for all she was letting go. She cheered the runners until she was hoarse. At some point, one last gap was blown in the thinning circle of undead, and the four men sprinted through, as red-​faced and dirty as the nurse atop the train.

“Almost here!” she cried.

And they were almost there, yes, coming up to run alongside the train. Winding down, though. All of them, from trudging through the snow. They were weakening. They were so close, and it might not be enough.

Mercy prised her hands off the edge. Scrambling, knees and elbows and hands and boot-​toes doing everything possible to hold to the roof, she hauled herself to its edge, just above the gap where one of the Rebels was losing steam, not quite close enough to heave himself on board.

She missed the last three ladder rungs and landed on the platform with a thud. Her knees ached, but her feet couldn’t feel the impact, as they were already deadened from the icy air and the freeze-​and-​refreeze of dampness.

“You!” she said, as if there were anyone else she might be talking to.

He gasped something in response, but it was unintelligible.

“Stay with me!” she commanded, and began the process of unbuckling the gunbelt from around her waist. It might work. Then again, it might not. The man alongside the train was a large fellow, brunet and heavyset but not so much fat as beefy. Regardless, he looked heavy.

Sending up a heartfelt prayer for the strength of the leather, she used the belt to lash herself to the platform rail—and she gave off a prayer for the railing, too. Then she ducked around the pole, held on tight with one still-​ungloved hand, and held out the other one.

“Take my hand!”

He replied, “Mmmph!” as he tried to follow her instructions, flinging himself forward and grabbing, but she remained barely out of reach.

So she lowered herself, sliding down along the pole. She leaned like she’d never leaned before, stretching herself out as if she could gain a few inches in height by pure willpower. Her hand trailed farther from the gap, nearer to the man.

It wasn’t enough.

But all she had to do was let go with the hand that braced her. Let go of the rail. Gain that extra half a foot.


“On the count of three!” she told him, since that was what worked for everyone else.

He nodded, and beads of sweat on his face went scattering as he jogged forward, still forward, almost spent—she could see it in his eyes.

“One . . . two . . . three!”

She released the pole and trusted the gunbelt to hold her, and the pole to hold the gunbelt, and the platform to hold the pole. She threw both arms out this time, leaning at her hips and straining. He gave one last surge—probably the last surge that was left in him—and closed the space between them.

Their hands met.

She seized his. He tried to seize back, but there wasn’t much strength for him to lend, so she did most of the work.

He stumbled.

She said, “God help me!” as she pulled him briefly off his feet. Then his knees were coming down against the tracks, and he was hanging in midair—supported just by her and the gunbelt. He was trying to help her help him, but it was hard, and he was almost gone, really. She’d asked too much of him, she could see that now; but she still had something of herself left, so she wrenched him up a joint at a time.

She had him by the wrists, and then the forearms.

Then the elbows.

Then the pole was beginning to bend and her arms were threatening to unhinge from their sockets, and the belt was straining as if the buckles might go at any minute.

The Rebel’s eyes went wide.

She knew what he was thinking, as plain as if it were written on his forehead. She growled, “No. Don’t. Don’t let go. Hang on.”

And then a pair of strong hands was on her shoulder, on both shoulders. Someone was pulling her up, and back, and drawing the Confederate with her.

She didn’t fight it, but pushed back into the utilitarian embrace. Soon the arms were around her waist, and then one was loose and reaching over her arms, to the Rebel, who took the hand that was offered him.

In a matter of moments, the three of them were on the platform. The Rebel, lying splayed there, threw up. Mercy, trussed to the bent pole, unbuckled herself with hands that shuddered with exhaustion. Inspector Galeano leaned against the wall of the car, holding his stomach and gasping.

“Thank you,” she told him.

The Rebel tried to say thank you as well, but instead threw up again.

Mercy asked, “You got the rest of them?”

He didn’t nod, but made a tired shrug and said between gulps of air, “Two of them. Another did not reach the train.”

The Rebel drew himself up to his quaking, bruised, scraped knees, and using the rail, pulled himself to his feet. He mustered a salute, and the inspector saluted back, parroting the unfamiliar gesture.

Mercy put a hand out and behind the Rebel, who might yet require a bit of steadying, in her professional opinion. But he held himself straight and wiped off his mouth with one sleeve, using the other to wipe his brow and cheeks as he followed the Mexican inspector into the passenger car.

They were greeted by Horatio Korman and Captain MacGruder, who were assisting the other two men who’d made it on board.

Lieutenant Hobbes was bent over one of the wounded Union men, offering comfort or bandaging. Mrs. Butterfield had stopped crying, and Miss Clay was still on point at the window nearby. Cole Byron stood by the forward doors, his dark skin shining with perspiration, and another porter crouched just beyond him, repairing a loosened connector. Morris Comstock was on his feet, and, like several of the other soldiers, was still picking off the undead here and there, though they could see fewer and fewer as the train gathered speed.

As the pace improved, the snow blew higher and harder around them, and this, too, helped wash the teeming undead away from the battered train and the passengers within it.

Everything was ice and soot, and gunpowder and snow, and a few dozen heartbeats spread along the train’s length. Most of the windows were gone, and the wind blew mercilessly inside, whipping hair into faces and clothing against bones.

For a while, no one spoke. Everyone was afraid to talk until the train was moving determinedly enough and the snowplow was kicking the debris high enough that not even the speediest of the monsters could catch them.

And then, after a few cleared throats, there were words of greeting.

Shortly thereafter, it was learned that Sergeant Elmer Pope, Private Steiner Monroe, and Corporal Warwick Cunningham were now in their midst, and all three men were exceedingly grateful for the assistance. They made no pretense of bluster. When things might have become awkward, given the circumstances, there instead came a moment of great camaraderie when the three Confederate men stood alongside the Union men and everyone looked out the windows at the retreating, ferocious, thinning hordes of the living dead.

The sergeant said, “I want you to know, we’d have done the same. Shoe being on the other foot, and all. Whether command liked it or not. We would’ve dealt with that later, but we wouldn’t have left you.”

And Captain MacGruder said, “I’d hope so.” He didn’t take his eyes away from the window until Inspector Galeano spoke.

As softly as the atmosphere would allow, the inspector said, “We’re all together in this.” Galeano was a ragged figure, his own uniform singed and seared with gunpowder, and bloodied here and there. His hat was missing and his wild, dark hair was more wild and dark than it should have been, but so was everyone else’s. They were northern and southern, Texan and Mexican, colored and white, officers and enlisted fellows . . . and, come to that, men and women. But the snow and the coal-​smoke were finished with them now, and the wind had gotten its way. Their eyes were bloodshot and their faces were blanched tight with cold; and they were all bleak inside with the knowledge of something awful.

It was a train full of strangers, and they were all the same.

Inspector Galeano spoke again, and he was hoarse from the blizzard and the shouting. The Spanish consonants were filed sharp in his mouth. He said, “There will be questions. From everyone, everywhere. All our nations will want to know what happened here. And we are the only ones who can tell them.”

Captain MacGruder nodded. “There’ll be inquiries, that’s for damn sure.”

Sergeant Pope said, “We were after your gold, and you were after the Chinamen out West. We had a fight between us, fair as can be.”

“But we won’t get our Chinamen now,” said the lieutenant. “The deeds all went sucking out into the pass someplace when that crazy woman busted out the gold car’s window with a prybar.” He pointed at Theodora Clay, who stood utterly unapologetic. “And the gold . . . I don’t know. I expect there are better uses for it.”

Corporal Cunningham said, “And Lord knows we’re in no position to take it from you now.” He gave a rueful little smile.

“We both had our reasons,” said the captain. “Civilized reasons. Disagreements between men. But those things . . .”

“Those things” was repeated in muttering utterances around the car.

The Southern sergeant said, “I want all of y’all to know, we didn’t do that. Whatever was done to them . . . we didn’t do it. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, and I don’t mind telling you, I near shit myself when they started eating my soldiers.”

“Us either,” said Lieutenant Hobbes.

And Captain MacGruder clarified, “They aren’t our work either. I’ll swear to it on my father’s grave.”

General murmurs of agreement and reinforcement made the rounds.

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