Dreadnought Page 65

“As a representative of the government that once . . .” Inspector Galeano sought a word, and didn’t find it. So he tried again. “Those people—those things that aren’t people anymore—they were my countrymen. I can assure you that whatever became of them was no work of ours.”

The ranger said, “Nor Texas, and that’s a goddamned fact.”

Anyone could’ve argued, but nobody did.

But everyone’s innocence having been established, a great round of speculation got under way. If not the North, and if not the South, and if not Texas or Mexico . . . then who? Or, God help them all, what if it were a disease—and there was no one at fault, and no one they could demand an explanation from?

All the way to Salt Lake City, the passengers and crew of the Dreadnought huddled and whispered, periodically checking themselves in the lavatories for any signs of drying eyes, graying skin, or yellowing membranes.

And no one found any.

So Mercy told them everything she knew about the yellow sap, and Inspector Galeano told them about a northwestern dirigible that had crashed in West Tejas, carrying a load of poisonous gas.


The next morning, the Dreadnought pulled what was left of its cargo and passengers into the station at Salt Lake City. Everyone on board looked and smelled like a war refugee.

All the occupants, including the conductor, his crew, and all the porters, stumbled down from the metal steps and onto terra firma in the Utah territory with a sense of relief that prompted several of the remaining civilians to burst into tears. Chilled beyond the bone, with many of them sporting injuries large and small that Mercy had done her best to patch, everyone was dazed. The train’s boilers cooled and clacked, but its hydrogen valves were all tightened into silence. Its interior was littered with broken glass, bullet casings, and blood. There it sat on the line, abandoned and silent, a husk that—for all its mighty power—looked forlorn.

Mercy sat on a bench inside the station’s great hall with Ranger Korman, Inspector Galeano, and the three Rebel soldiers. All in a row they watched the people bustle by, coming and going, taking notes and asking the inevitable questions.

Though they received a few strange glances, no one stopped them to ask why three Confederates had been aboard or why they were being permitted to simply leave; and no one demanded to know what a Mexican inspector was doing there; and no one wondered aloud why a Texas Ranger was this far north and west of his home turf.

This was not America, after all. Nor the Confederacy, or Texas, or Mexico either. So if anybody cared, nobody said anything. There was no war here, Utah’s or anybody else’s.

Paperwork was sorted.

New trains were offered.

All the rattled civilians were sent to their original destinations.

Theodora Clay and her aunt Norene vanished without a good-​bye. Mercy wondered if Horatio Korman ever got his gun back, but she didn’t ask. She was pretty sure that if he’d wanted it, he would’ve seen about retrieving it. Captain MacGruder and Lieutenant Hobbes were assigned to another train and other duties before Mercy ever got a chance to tell them how much she’d appreciated their presence. But she liked to think they knew, and understood.

In time, someone approached the three southern men and gave them envelopes with tickets, back east and south, Mercy assumed. The soldiers offered quiet parting salutations and tips of their hats and were gone. Inspector Galeano left next, taking his tickets and claiming his seat on a train that would eventually take him to his homeland, where he would have a most amazing story to tell.

Then it was the ranger’s turn. Horatio Korman stood, touched the rim of his hat, and said, “Ma’am.” And that was all.

He, too, left her seated on the wide wooden bench, all alone and not quite certain if she was glad for the sudden privacy after so many weeks of being cooped up and crowded . . . or if she was very, very lonely.

But finally it was her turn, and the conductor of her own train was crying, “All aboard!” on the tracks outside. She squeezed her tickets, climbed to her feet, and met her train.

It was called the Rose Marie, and it looked nothing like the Dreadnought, which was somehow both reassuring and disappointing. By comparison, the Rose Marie looked like a fragile thing, something that could not possibly make the remainder of the journey—over mountains or around them, across plains and along rivers, for another thousand miles.

But the little engine with its pristine sleeper cars and shiny steel trim carried her swiftly—at times even more swiftly than the Dreadnought ever did, which was no surprise, since its load was lighter and it was not dragged down with a militia’s fortune in arms and ammunition.

The rest of the mountain chain passed with a panorama of epic scenery sometimes covered in snow, and sometimes glittering with sky blue lakes of melted ice.

Mercy did not talk to her fellow passengers much. What would she say?

Beyond the most necessary pleasantries, she ignored and avoided them, and she was likewise ignored and avoided. Even though she’d cleaned her cloak and dress to the best of her abilities, they still showed bloodstains and tears, and—as she discovered in the washroom one morning—two bullet holes. Her hands were bandaged, a task she’d undertaken by herself and upon which she’d performed a decent job, if not a great one; but her fingers ached all the time as they healed, and the new skin stretched tight and itchy across the places where she’d lost the old.

The last thousand miles, between Salt Lake City and Tacoma, were exactly as uneventful as the first two thousand had been action filled.

Sometimes, when she thought she’d go stark raving mad with boredom, she’d remember lying atop the roof of the Dreadnought’s passenger car, the skin of her throat sticking to the freezing metal and her hands all but glued together by ice. She’d recall watching the southern soldiers as they ran, dodging, ducking, between the ranks of the hungry dead, running for their lives. And she imagined the smoke and snow in her hair, and then she considered picking up a penny dreadful or two at the next stop.

She picked up a total of three, using almost the very last of her cash.

She even read them. Well, she had the time. And nothing else to do.

And people tended not to bother a woman with a book.

After a few days, she checked the newspapers at every stop, looking for some sign that someone—anyone—had made it back and begun to explain what had happened at Provo . . . and the Dreadnought, and the people who’d ridden upon it. But she never spied any mention of any of these things, so she told herself that it must be too soon. Inspector Galeano could’ve never made it back to Mexico yet; Ranger Korman wouldn’t have even hit Amarillo yet; and Captain MacGruder wouldn’t be back at the Mississippi River yet. So she’d be patient, and wait. Eventually, the world would know. Eventually, a newspaper somewhere would have to announce the story and tell it whole, and true.


But not while Mercy Swakhammer Lynch made her way to the West Coast.

In a dull fog of fatigue and apathy she rode through Twin Falls, Boise, and Pendleton. She spent the night in Walla Walla, and in the morning boarded another train, one called the City of Santa Fe. Then, on to Yakima, from whence she sent her final telegram to her final destination, in hopes that the sheriff would be there to collect her, because if he wasn’t, Mercy had no earthly idea what she’d do next.

Cedar Falls. Kanaskat.

Auburn. Federal Way.


Mercy exited the train with an upset stomach and a nervous headache.

She stepped into an afternoon covered with low gray clouds, but the world felt bright compared to the relative shade of the train’s interiors. It was cold, but not exceptionally so. The air was humid and tasted strange—a little tangy, and a little sour with a scent she couldn’t quite place.

The station was a big compound, but the tracks were not very crowded, and the City of Santa Fe was the only train debarking. Only a few people milled around the station’s edges—the station managers, the engineers, the railmen who worked the water pumps and inspected the valve connections, and the ubiquitous porters . . . though she noticed that they weren’t all black. Some were Oriental, in the same sharp porter uniforms but with hair that was long and braided, and sometimes shaved back from their faces.

Mercy tried not to stare, but the sight of so many at once amazed and distracted her.

Her curiosity about the men did not distract her from the unsettling truth of her situation. She was three thousand miles from home, absolutely broke, and possessing virtually nothing but the clothes on her back and the contents of her medical satchel, which had become much depleted over the weeks.

She stood beside the station agent’s door and tried not to fret about the circumstances. She scanned the face and vest of every passing man, hoping to spot a badge or some other mark that would identify a sheriff.

So she was rather unprepared to hear, “Vinita Swakhammer?” Because in order to reply, she was compelled to address a smallish woman in her mid- to late thirties. This smallish woman wore pants that were tucked into the tops of her boots and a fitted waistcoat with a badge clipped to the watch pocket. Her jacket was frankly too large, and her brown slouch hat was held aloft by a curly tangle of dark brown hair that was streaked with orange the shade of cheap gold.

“Sh . . . ,” Mercy began. She gave it another shot. “Sheriff—?”

“Briar Wilkes,” the other woman said. She stuck out her hand.

“And you’re . . . you’re the sheriff?”

She shrugged. “If there’s law in Seattle, I guess it’s me as much as anybody.”

“I never heard of a woman sheriff before.”

“Well, now you have,” Briar said, but she didn’t seem to take any offense.

Mercy imagined it was the sort of thing she answered questions about all the time. She said, “I suppose so. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“Don’t worry about it. Anyway, do you have any . . . bags or anything?”

“No. This is it,” Mercy said. Then she asked quickly, “How did you know it was me?”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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