Though Mercy had been warned of the possibility of motion sickness, she did not become ill and was thankful for it. The food was fairly good, the weather remained quite fair-sunny and cool, with the ever-present breeze off the river-and the voyage promised to be pleasant and problem free.
However, by the second day, Mercy was bored beyond belief. It wasn’t quite like being bored on a train. Despite the fact that she could get up, and wander through several decks, and lie down or stretch her legs at her leisure, something about being in the middle of that immense, muddy strip of water made her feel trapped in a way that a simple railcar did not. Certainly, it would be easier to dive overboard and swim to safety should trouble present itself than to fling herself from a moving train; and to be sure, the grub down in the galley was better than anything she’d ever packed for herself; and it was a demonstrable fact that this boat was making swifter progress than virtually any of the others it passed going upriver. But even when the paddles were churning and the diesel was pumping so fast and hard that the whole craft shuddered, she couldn’t shake the sensation that they were moving more slowly than they ought to be.
The captain told her it was a trick of the water, and how swiftly it worked against them. She forced herself to be patient.
If the sun was out, she’d sit on the benches on the deck and watch the water, the distant shore, and the other vessels that moved along beside them, coming and going in each direction, up and down the river. Bigger, heavier cargo fleets swam along at a snail’s crawl, paddling and sometimes towing barges packed with cotton bales, shipping crates, and timber. Lighter, prettier steamers from the Anchor Line piped up and down, playing their organs alongside the whistles to announce themselves and entertain their passengers. Every now and again, a warship would skulk past, the only kind of craft that could outpace the Providence as she surged forward into the current. On their decks Mercy saw grim-faced sailors-and sometimes happy ones-waving cloths or flags at the Texian vessel, waiting for the captain to pull the chain and sound his whistle back at them, as he invariably did.
The warships made her think of Tennessee, and of Fort Chattanooga, and that terrible night near Cleveland. They also reminded her of the newspaper she’d stashed in her satchel, so she retrieved it and sat outside reading it while the weather and the light held.
As she read, scanning the articles for interesting highlights, then reading the whole things anyway, she was joined on the bench by Farragut Cunningham, a Texian cargo manager with a shipment of sugar from the Caribbean. He was a great friend of the captain’s, and had swiftly become a reasonable and engaging conversation-mate. Mercy was terribly interested in the extensive traveling he’d done for his business dealings, and on their first night aboard she’d interrogated him about the islands. She’d never been on an island, and the thought of it fascinated and charmed her.
On the second day of the journey, he sat beside her on the deck bench and struck a match. He stuck it down into the bowl of his pipe and sucked the tobacco alight with a series of quick puffs that made his cheeks snap.
“Is any of the news fit to read?” he asked, biting the end of the pipe between his teeth so that it cocked out of his mouth at an angle, underneath the fringe of his dark brown mustache and just to the right of his chin, where a red streak bisected his beard.
“Some of it, I guess,” she replied. “It’s a couple days old now, but I don’t have anything else to read.”
“No paperbacks? No novels, or assortments of poetry?”
She said, “Nope. I don’t read much. Just newspapers, sometimes, when I can get my hands on ’em. I’d rather know what’s happening than listen to someone tell me a story they made up.”
“That’s a reasonable attitude to take, though it’s a shame. Many wonderful stories have been made up and written down.”
“I guess.” She pointed at the article about the Dreadnought’s movement out of southern Tennessee, and she said, “I almost saw that thing, the other night.”
“That’s right. I was taking an airship from Richmond to Chattanooga, and we crashed down right in the middle of the lines, just about. That engine was there, and everyone acted like they was scared to death of it.”
He took another puff, filling the air with a dim, sweet cloud of grayish blue smoke. “It’s a frightful machine, and I mean that in more ways than one.” He lifted the brim of his hat and scratched a spot on his hairline while staring out into the distance, over the water.
“On the one hand, it’s a machine built to be as mighty and dangerous as possible. It’s armored to the teeth, or from the cowcatcher to the hitch, however you’d like to look at it. It’s a dual-fuel creature like this ship-part diesel and part coal for steam-and it can generate more power than any other engine I ever heard of. It’s plenty fast for something as heavy as it is, too.” He added softly, “Faster than any other engine the Union’s got, that’s for damn sure, armored or not.”
“But not faster than ours?” She didn’t bother to differentiate between the Confederacy and the Republic. She’d learned already that aboard this ship the distinction was merely semantic.
“No, not faster than ours. Course, none of ours are half so deadly. We could catch the Dreadnought, no problem at all. But God knows what we’d do with it, once we caught it.”
Mercy looked back down at the sheet, spread across her lap. “What about the other hand?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“You said ‘on the one hand.’ What’s on the other one?”
“Oh. That’s right. On the one hand, the engine is frightful because it’s an instrument of war. On the other hand, it was designed quite deliberately to make people afraid. You said you were there, in Tennessee,” he cocked his head at the paper. “Did you get a good look at it?”
“No sir, I didn’t. I only heard the whistle, back on the battlefield. I heard it brought a Union mechanized walker to the fight.”
He said, “I reckon it did. Those walkers weigh so much, there’s no other way to move ’em around the map. All powered up, even our petroleum-powered walkers can’t run more than an hour or two. The Yanks have those shitty steam-powered jobs. They can hit like the dickens-don’t misunderstand me-but no one can stand to drive ’em for more than thirty minutes. But now, you said you didn’t see the Dreadnought.”
“No sir. You ever see it?”
He nodded. “I saw it once, up in Chicago when I was passing through on my way to Canada to nab a load of pelts. I saw it in the train yard, and I don’t mind telling you, it made me look twice. It’s a devil of a thing. It’s got so much plating that it looks like it’s wearing a mask, and they’ve welded so many guns and light cannon on top of it, it’s a wonder the damn thing’ll roll at all; but it does. If you came that close to it and never saw it, much less encountered it up close and personal, that’s a lucky thing for you,” he said. Then he amended the assessment to include, “Airship crash or none.”
He sucked at the pipe for a few seconds. Mercy didn’t say anything until he pulled the pipe out of his mouth and used it to point at the bottom right of the page. “Now, what’s that say? Down there? Can you tell me?”
“Something about Mexico, and the emperor there being up to no good.”
Farragut Cunningham snorted. “Well, that just makes it a day ending with a y. Can you read me a line or two? I left my magnifiers in my cabin, and I can’t hardly see a thing without them.”
“ ‘Emperor Maximilian the Third accuses Texian vigilantes, rangers, and residents in the mysterious disappearance of Mexican humanitarian legion.’ ”
The Texian sniffed. “I just bet he does.”
She went on. “ ‘The emperor insists that the troops were merely a peacekeeping force sent north in order to assist the emigration of Mexican nationals back into undisputed Mexican territory-’ ”
“Let ’em go. Let ’em all go, we don’t want ’em.”
“ ‘Texians have disputed that claim, and insisted that the military presence amounted to an act of invasion.’ ”
“More or less, damn straight that’s what it is. Should’ve never sent those uniforms over the Rio Grande like that-they sure as hell know that’s their boundary, agreed upon by their own people, and years ago now.”
Mercy looked up from the paper. “All right, I’m confused. Does this mean there are Mexicans in north Texas?”
Her bench-mate fidgeted as if this was an irritating subject, and stuffed the pipe back in his mouth. “Oh, you know how it is. They done lost their war, and now the nation’s ours. But they like to dicker with us about where the northwest lines are.”
“That seems . . . imprecise.”
“Maybe it is, a little. Problem is, even when we can agree with ol’ Max on where the northwest boundaries are, the people who live there sometimes don’t. I ain’t going to lie to you-it’s the middle of godforsaken nowhere, and the homesteaders and settlers and the like, some of them are pretty sure they’re citizens of Mexico. But when the lines got redrawn-” He hesitated and clarified. “-when the lines got redrawn this most recent time, a bunch of citizens got right peeved about paying taxes to the Republic, when they thought they were Mexicans.”
“So now Mexico is helping them . . . move back to Mexico? Even though they already lived in Mexico, as far as they knew?” she asked.
“More or less. But things change, and the map lines change, and people can either go with that flow or go jump, for all I care.”
Mercy glanced down and skimmed the rest as quickly as she could. “Then why’d Texas get upset, if the troops were only there to move their own folks back to the right side of their line?”
Cunningham sat forward and used the pipe to gesture like a schoolteacher, or like someone’s father explaining the family’s political opinion to a child with too many questions. “See, if that’s all they were doing, that’d be fine. But if all they wanted was to move their own folks back, they didn’t have to send five hundred men with guns and uniforms, bullying their way up past Oneida. They could’ve just sent some of their religious folk from the missions or something-since they got papists coming out the ears-or maybe they could’ve talked to that Red Cross. Get some people out to help the relocaters relocate, that’s fine; but don’t send the contents of a presidio and expect everybody to believe they’re minding nobody’s business but their own.”
Mercy nodded, even though there was a lot she didn’t really understand. She followed enough to ask, “What happened to the troops, then? Five hundred men don’t just disappear into thin air.”
He leaned back again, still drawing shapes with his pipe, which was nearly burned down cool. “I don’t know if it was five hundred or not. Something like that, though. And I don’t know what happened to ’em-could’ve been anything. That far north and west, shoot . . . could’ve been rattlesnakes or Indians, or cholera, or a twister . . . or maybe they ran across a town big enough to object to a full-on military garrison sneaking across their property. I’m not saying they ran afoul of the locals, but I’m saying it could’ve happened, and it wouldn’t surprise me none.” He put the end of the pipe back in his mouth and bit at it, but didn’t suck at it. And he said, “Wouldn’t be nobody’s fault but their own, neither.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Mercy said, despite the fact that she wasn’t. But she didn’t want to be rude, and there were lots of things she didn’t know about Texas-and even more she didn’t know about Mexico-so she wouldn’t open her mouth just to put her foot in it.
“You see anything else interesting in that paper?” Cunningham asked, giving up on the pipe and drawing one leg up over his knee so he could tamp out the bowl’s contents against the heel of his boot.
“Most of the rest of it’s just stuff about the war.”
“No big surprise there, I guess. Does it say anything about what the Yankees were doing, pushing that line down all the way past Nashville? They must’ve had some good reason for a spearhead like that. God knows they went to plenty of trouble to make it happen, bringing that engine and that mech. Then again,” he mused, “maybe there’s no good reason. Maybe we’re just whittling the war down to the end, and this latest back-and-forth is only its death throes. It feels like the end. It feels like something thrashing about before it’s done for.”
Mercy said, “Naw, it don’t talk about why; it just talks about them doing it.” She folded the paper over again, halfway rolling it up. She offered it to the Texian, asking, “Would you like it? I’ve read it now, top to bottom and front to back, and I’m done with it.”
“Thank you, ma’am, but no thank you. Looks like more bad and pointless news to me. I’d just as soon skip it.”
“All right. I’ll just put it in the game room, on one of the poker tables.” She rose, and Cunningham rose with her, touching the front of his hat.
He then sat back down and refilled his pipe. Once it was alight again, he leaned back into the bench to watch the river, the boats, and the occasional fish, turtles, and driftwood sweep on past.