Mercy’s seat was in the fourth passenger car. To the best of her assessment, this meant that the train was lined up thusly: the great and terrible engine, a coal car, a secondary car that probably managed the diesel apparatus or other armaments, a third car whose purpose Mercy could not gather, the seven passenger cars (two Pullman first-class sleeping cars in the lead, the remaining passenger-class cars behind them), then a caboose with full food service, and, finally, an additional caboose that was no caboose at all, but the refrigerated car carrying the remains of the Union war dead. This car was strictly off-limits to all, as was made apparent by the flat bar with a lock the size of a man’s fist securing both the front and back doors of the thing, in addition to its painted-over windows that allowed not even the slimmest glimpse inside.
But Mercy could see none of this from inside her compartment in the fourth sleeper car, a square box with a wall of windows and two padded bench seats that faced each other. Each seat could’ve comfortably sat three women dressed for travel or four men dressed for business, but the nurse had the full length of the bench to herself.
She spent fifteen nervous minutes sorting out her brittle yellow tickets and the papers that ought to accompany her, including both the notes on her husband’s passing from the Union Army and her certification from the Robertson Hospital, which said such contradictory and true things about her that she once again thanked heaven she’d kept them in her personal bag, and not stuffed them into the long-lost portmanteau.
The Ranger Horatio Korman was nowhere to be seen or found, but, as the train was being settled, two women came to take the bench that faced Mercy. After polite nods, Mercy watched them closely. She had no idea how long they’d be forced to look at one another or how well she could expect to enjoy their company-if at all.
One woman was quite elderly and small, with a back that was beginning to hunch despite her corsetry’s determined stance against this development. Her hair was white, and simply but firmly styled, and her eyes were a watery gray that spotted everything from behind a light wire set of spectacles. She wore black gloves that matched strangely with her pale blue dress, and a little black hat that suited the gloves even if the dress did not. She introduced herself as Norene Butterfield, recently widowed, and her companion as her niece, Miss Theodora Clay.
Miss Theodora Clay was taller than her aunt by a full head, never mind the low gray hat that capped her shiny brown curls. She was younger than the other woman by forty years at least, which might have put her near thirty; she wore a smart but inexpensive lavender suit and gray gloves, plus black boots that peeked their pointed toes from beneath her skirt when she lifted Mrs. Butterfield’s luggage to store it in the drop-down berth above.
The sight of her made Mercy feel unkempt, and inclined her to camp in the washroom section of the car-but, she concluded, not until the train was moving and their trip was under way. Besides, the washroom was presently occupied by a tired-looking man with two small children who had trundled inside and shut the door ten minutes previously. He could be heard begging the little boys to finish up and wash their hands, or wash their faces, or fasten their drawers.
She was not particularly comfortable, but she very much wanted the trip to get under way. She could not help but notice how many armed, uniformed men were riding the train . . . particularly for a civilian operation, as had been so vigorously claimed. Mrs. Butterfield spied Mercy watching the enlisted lads and said in a surprisingly hearty voice, “It’s a relief to have them aboard, isn’t it?”
“A relief? I suppose, yes,” she said without committing herself to anything.
“We’ll be going through Indian country, after all,” she added.
Mercy said, “I guess that’s true,” even though she didn’t have the foggiest idea where Indian country began or ended, except a nebulous sense that it was someplace west.
“I rather like seeing them, the blue boys, with their guns. Makes me feel safer,” she said with the certainty of someone who’d heard about the threat, but was fairly certain she’d never meet it in person. It reminded Mercy of Dennis and Larsen from the crash in Tennessee. “And so many of them so young, and unmarried.” She turned a keen, squinty eye to her niece, who was reading a newspaper.
Miss Clay did not look up. She said, “No doubt, Aunt Norene.”
“And what of you, dear?” she returned her attention to Mercy, who was not wearing her gloves and therefore had her wedding band on display. “Where’s your husband?”
“He died,” she said, doing her best to moderate an accent that would’ve given her away anywhere, even underwater. But their chitchat had progressed this far without any commentary upon it, so she hoped for the best.
“In the war?” Mrs. Butterfield asked.
Mercy nodded. “In the war.”
The old woman shook her head and said, “Sometimes I wonder that we’ve got any men left at all, after all this time fighting. I despair for my niece.”
Her despaired-for niece turned the newspaper page and said, “I suppose someone must.” But she added no further objection or encouragement.
Mercy hadn’t known and hadn’t asked, when the two women joined her, where they might have come from or where their sensibilities might lie; but within the hour she learned that they were from Ohio, and they were headed west to investigate some property left by the late Mr. Butterfield, who’d bequeathed them a mine. However, the details were fuzzy, and his death must’ve been quite some time ago for Mrs. Butterfield to traipse about in powder blue. Miss Clay had once been engaged to a highly placed and upstanding Union major, but alas, he’d been killed on the field less than a month before their wedding day.
All this information came from Mrs. Butterfield, with Miss Clay declining to annotate the chatter. Indeed, she seemed more predisposed to break into her assortment of papers and novels, even though the journey had not yet started.
Mercy had a feeling that this was her preferred method of ignoring the aunt, for whom she clearly served as nursemaid or assistant. Likewise, the oft-ignored Mrs. Butterfield was more than happy to find a willing ear in Mercy, who didn’t much mind the interaction, though she could see how it might grow tiresome over the long haul.
Before long, the sharply dressed conductor came walking through the car to examine tickets and, Mercy gathered, take stock of his charges. He was a man somewhere between the ages of Mrs. Butterfield and Miss Clay, with the ramrod posture of a fellow who’d spent some time in the military himself, but he sported a tall steel brace along one leg. This brace propped him into a standing position and clicked softly when he walked, a mechanical limp that carried him from compartment to compartment. His smile was only a narrow, bent line, impatient to be off and away from what was iffy territory at best. Missouri could not be trusted, not by either side.
Mercy watched him examine paperwork and take questions, answering with haste and pushing ever back, back to the next passengers, and soon to the next car.
A dignified old negro in a freshly pressed Pullman porter’s uniform trailed in the conductor’s wake, securing luggage and directing passengers to the washroom, explaining the hours during which food would be served in the caboose, and making informed guesses about how much longer it’d be before they left-or before they stopped again. He secured doors, fastened cabinets, checked his pocket watch against some signal from outside, and followed the conductor into the next car, out of sight.
It took Mercy a moment to realize why this felt strange to her, and why she watched him and her fellow passengers with a wary eye as Mrs. Butterfield lectured her on the subject of ice-skating. She looked at the people on the train, one face at a time, and saw old men and old women, and a few younger women like herself; and in the comings and goings of the porters, she saw a few negroes who were young enough to be her brother. But the only young white men were soldiers. Some of these soldiers clustered together in their compartments, and others wandered as if on patrol, or maybe they were only restless. A few were painfully young-teenage boys without any facial hair, and with skinny, concave chests and narrow hips. One or two showed terrible scars across the exposed skin of their necks and hands. Sometimes she could guess with professional precision what had caused the wounds. She recognized close-range shrapnel, artillery burns, and the strange texture of flesh deeply scalded by steam. Mercy privately wondered what her seating companion had so recently wondered aloud-that there were any men left alive at all anymore, on either side.
Finally, after what felt like an interminable delay and an afternoon effectively wasted, the dreadful whistle blew, startling and straightening the backs of everyone inside the seven passenger cars. With a breathtaking hiccup of machinery, the locomotive started forward.
Even Mrs. Butterfield silenced herself as the train’s motion began in earnest, crawling through the station and passing crowds, columns, newsstands, parked and boarding freight, and passenger cars still waiting upon other tracks, in other gates. For these few moments, all eyes were on the windows and the panorama spinning slowly by, picking up speed by pumps and puffs, pulling away from the station and then to the fringe of the city itself, past the freight yards, cabins, sheds, warehouses, and cargo lots. And then, much sooner than Mercy might’ve predicted, they were moving at a steady clip through a no-man’s-land of trees, tunnels, tracks, and very little else.
The first few hours were a sedative, lulling the passengers into a contingent of nodding heads, sprawled knees, and open mouths snoring softly. A rotund man with a flask in his vest slipped it up and out, and sipped at the brandy or whiskey he had within it. Within a moment, the wafting fumes told Mercy that the answer was brandy after all.
The world was dull and rocking; the train was a cradle on a track, and even the hardiest travelers were so content to be finally on the move that they grumbled to themselves and slept, even though there were at least another twenty or thirty days of the same routines ahead.
Mercy turned her face to the window, but it was growing February cold-colder here than in Virginia, when she’d left it-and her skin deposited a layer of moistness in the shape of her cheek and the side of her mouth. After all the excitement and fear and uncertainty of learning that she’d be riding on the Dreadnought, and after all the frantic scrambling to bring herself all the way from Virginia to Missouri, she was not yet one day into the westernmost leg of her travel and already bored to distraction. Even the reticent Miss Clay was nodding off, her head occasionally tapping against the top of Mrs. Butterfield’s as they dozed together.
Just when she thought the trip could not become any more tedious, and that she might surreptitiously snatch one of the tempting dreadfuls that were scattered along Miss Clay’s seat, the forward car door opened and two men came strolling through it. They moved single file because the door was so very narrow, and they conversed quietly, though they did not whisper.
The one who was nearest to Mercy was thin, and wearing a Union uniform with a captain’s insignia. His hair was snow white, though his face was peculiarly unlined. If he’d been wearing a brown wig or a hat with fuller coverage than a Union cap, she would’ve guessed him to be around thirty-five.
He said to his companion, “We’ll need to keep an eye out,” with an accent that came from New England-somewhere north of Pennsylvania.
“Obviously,” spit the other man, as if this were the most preposterous thing anyone had ever said aloud in his presence. “Everything is sealed, but that could change in an instant, and then what?” This second speaker, taller and perhaps of a similar rank (Mercy couldn’t imagine he’d speak so abruptly to a superior), was wearing a uniform that suggested they served the same government, though maybe a different branch. His hair was a color she’d almost never seen before, except on children: a vivid orange that clashed with the fervent brown of his eyes. His face was strong and attractive, but flustered and a little bit mean.
The captain snapped, “The whole thing makes me magnificently nervous. I know what they were saying about it, at the station. And I demand to know-”
“I don’t care about your demands-this is not your job! It’s-” He stopped himself, having snagged Mercy’s gaze with the corner of his eye. He forced a smile that wouldn’t have fooled a blind dog, dipped his head, and said, “Pardon me, ma’am.” His accent was far more neutral, and she couldn’t guess its origins.
She said, “Sure.” Mercy was fiercely curious as to what they’d been talking about, but she wouldn’t learn now. There was little point in keeping them, but she couldn’t bring herself to let the encounter close, so she cleared her throat and said, “I don’t mean to sound nosy or nothing, but I was wondering: I’ve never seen a uniform quite like yours. What work do you do for the Union?”
The first man plastered on a smile that looked somewhat less false than his friend’s, and bowed. He said, “Ma’am, please allow me to introduce myself-I’m Captain Warren MacGruder, and my redheaded friend over here”-he winced at the word friend, but so slightly that almost no one would’ve noticed-“is Mr. Malverne Purdue.”
She asked, “Mr.?”
“Yes. Mr. Purdue is a civilian, and a scientist. He’s being paid as a-” He fished for a word, discarded his first choice, and went with the second thing that came to mind. “-consultant.” But it clearly left a bad taste in his mouth.
“I see,” she said. “My name’s Mercy Lynch, and I didn’t mean to stop you or bother you; I just wondered, is all. Anyway, I was thinking about heading back to the caboose for a little peck of supper. It’s about that time, isn’t it?”
Mr. Purdue all but rolled his eyes. The captain dug around in his pocket for a watch, found it, flipped it open, and confirmed. “Yes, it is. We were just heading there ourselves. Would you care to join us?”
“What a coincidence. And how nice,” she added, pleased at the prospect of company.
At some point during the conversation, Miss Clay had awakened. She’d been watching the scene unfold as well, and chose this moment to say, “I think I’ll join you.”
Mercy was surprised, if for no other reason than that Miss Clay had not seemed very interested in making friends. And it wasn’t as if she needed directions or assistance to the caboose; there were only two ways to go on the train-toward the engine or toward the dead men bringing up the rear.
Miss Clay took the lead, underscoring the fact that she had no real need for company. The captain did not offer his arm to Mercy, but he extended his hand, gallantly offering to let her go first-which was much more clever than offering an arm, given the thin aisle.
Mercy reached for Miss Clay’s arm and caught it with a soft tap. “Miss Clay, what about your aunt?”
Miss Clay gave her elderly charge a glance and said, “She’ll be fine. She’s less of an invalid than she’d have you think, and if she needs something, believe me, she won’t hesitate to wake someone up and ask for it.”
With these assurances, the four of them sidled up to the rear car door and Miss Clay pulled it, mastering the latch immediately-or perhaps she’d spent a great deal of time on trains; Mercy didn’t know. Then she stepped out onto the connecting platform and scarcely touched the supporting rails as she took the two or three steps across, and over to the next car.
Out between the cars, the wind was astonishing. It whipped at Mercy’s cloak and threatened to peel it off her body, but she gripped the front edges and held it fast with one hand while she felt for the rail with the other one. Malverne Purdue stepped past her with great agility, following in the wake of Theodora Clay; but Captain MacGruder waited behind and put a hand on her elbow, attempting to steady her.
Mercy had no hat handy, for she’d never replaced the one she’d lost in the luggage, so her hair was braided up in a fat button behind her ears. As she crushed her eyes into narrow slits against the cold, fast air, the edges of her cloak’s hood flapped like a flag, pulling the braid apart.
“Thank you,” she mumbled, arranging her feet and pushing herself forward, trying not to look at the track scrolling beneath her with such speed that it blurred into a wide, solid line. “We must be going quite fast,” she said dumbly.
“I believe so,” the captain said. He was nearly yelling into her ear, but his words had no sharpness, only genteel agreement. When she reached the other platform, he was immediately behind her; he reached around her to open the door, which had closed behind the two who’d gone before them.
Soon they were safely sealed in the next car back. As they walked, the captain said, “I don’t suppose you do much travel by train.”
“No sir, I don’t,” she told him. “This is only my second trip on a train, ever.”
“Second trip ever? You’ve picked quite a machine for your second voyage. May I ask where you’re from? I can’t quite place you by your speech,” he said mildly, but Mercy knew what he meant.
Most Yankees couldn’t tell a Tennessean from a southern Indianan, much less a Texan from a Georgian, so she went ahead and lied. “Kentucky.” He’d never know the difference, and it was a safe cover for the way she talked.
“Kentucky is a fine state. Bluegrass and horses, as I understand it.”
“Yep. We’ve got plenty of those. The place is lousy with them,” she muttered as she turned sideways to scoot past a sleeping child who’d fallen out of his compartment and hung halfway across the aisle, drooling into the main walkway. She’d never actually been to Kentucky. She’d met Phillip in Richmond, and he’d moved to Waterford to be near her before he’d wound up going to war. Not that this stopped her from knowing a thing or two about the place. They’d talked, after all.
“And your husband?” he asked quietly, for many of this car’s occupants were likewise asleep.
She glanced down at her wedding band, and said, “He passed. In the war.”
“Kentuckian, like yourself?”
“He was from Lexington, yes.”
“I hope you’ll pardon me if I pry, but I can’t help but being curious.”
“Pry away,” she encouraged him, mumbling “Excuse me” to an old man whose legs had lolled into the aisle.
“Where did you lose your husband? Which front, I mean to ask? I’m friends with a few of your bluegrass cousins myself, and I make a point to look out for them, when I can.”
She didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not, which wouldn’t have stopped her from answering. It was something else that made her hesitate: a sensation of being watched. Mercy looked to the back of the car, and to the right, and met the eyes of Horatio Korman, who had been watching, and no doubt listening, too. He did not blink. She looked away first, down to the floor and then up, for the latch on the door out of the car.
Well within Korman’s range of hearing she declared, almost defiantly, “He didn’t die on a front. He died in a prisoners’ camp, at Andersonville. In Georgia.”
“I’m sorry to learn of it.”
“So was I, just a week or two ago,” she rounded off and up, reluctant to relate the incident with any more proximity. “And I hope you’ll forgive me if I leave it at that. I’m still getting the feel of being a widow.”
As the wind of the train’s motion blasted her in the face once more, she turned her head to see the Texas Ranger watching her still, without any expression. Even the edges of his prodigious mustache did not twitch. His eyebrows gave nothing away.
She turned her attention to the crossing junction over the couplers, and this time navigated with slightly more grace. Captain MacGruder closed the door behind them both, and followed her into the next car.
Eventually they reached the caboose, a long, narrow thing with tables and chairs established for food and tea service. Miss Clay was already seated with a cup of coffee that smelled strongly of chicory, and Mr. Purdue was still at the tender’s counter, deciding on the refreshments that would best suit him. Upon seeing the captain, he selected his meal and came to sit beside Miss Clay, as if this were now the natural order of the universe.
“Could I get you anything?” the captain offered, gesturing at the counter, with its menu composed in chalk on a slate. “I can vouch for the-”
But just then, two men burst through the entrance door, looking breathless and thoroughly disheveled. Both were dressed in their Union blues, and both were blond as angels. They might’ve been brothers, though the lad on the left held a brass telescoping device in one shaking hand.
“Captain!” they said together. The man with the telescope held it up as if it ought to explain something, but he was nearly out of breath, so his fellow soldier took over.
“From the lookout on the second car,” he panted. “We’ve got trouble coming up from the east!”
“Coming right at us!”
Captain MacGruder whirled away from the counter and acknowledged them with a nod. “Ladies, Mr. Purdue. Stay here in the back. You’ll be safer.”
Miss Clay opened her mouth to object, but Malverne Purdue beat her to the punch. “Don’t lump me in with the women, you yellow mick.” He pulled a pistol out of his pocket and made a run for the door.
“Fellas!” said the counterman, but no one answered him.
“Excuse us,” said the captain as he pushed the soldiers and Mr. Purdue through the caboose door and back into the blustery gap between the cars. The door slammed shut behind them and Mercy was left, still standing and confused, with only Miss Clay and the counterman as company. She didn’t know which one of them was most likely to know, but she asked aloud, “What’s going on?”
Miss Clay realized she’d been sitting with her mouth open. She covered for this oversight by pulling the cup of coffee to her lips and drinking as deeply as the heat would allow. When she was finished, she said, “I’m sure I don’t know.”
Mercy turned to the counterman, whose uniform was kin to the ones the porters wore. His hair was clipped down close against his scalp, leaving an inky shadow spilling out from underneath his round cap. He said, “Ma’am?” as if he didn’t know either, and wasn’t sure how to guess. But then a set of shots was fired, somewhere up toward the front of the train, far enough away that they sounded meaningless. He said, “Raiders, I suppose. Here in Missouri, I couldn’t say. Bushwhackers, like as not. We’re flying a Union flag, after all.”
Miss Clay took another ladylike sip from her cup and said, “Filthy raiders. Stupid filthy raiders, if they’re coming after a train like this. I don’t see myself getting terribly worked up about it.”
More gunshots popped, and a window broke at the edge of what Mercy could clearly hear. “What about your aunt?” she asked.
At this, Miss Clay’s frosty demeanor cracked ever so slightly. “Aunt Norene?” She rose from her seat and carried the cup over to the counterman, who took it from her. “I suppose I should look in on her.”
“Whether or not you’re worked up about the train being shot at, I think she might be a little concerned,” Mercy told Miss Clay. She had also left her satchel on the seat, where she’d assumed it would be quite safe, but she now wished rather hard for her revolvers. She reached for the door and pulled it open, disregarding the captain’s instructions as if he’d never given them.
Miss Clay was so close on Mercy’s heels that she occasionally trod upon them as they struggled between the cars back into a passenger compartment, where people were ducking down and the shots were more clearly audible. At the moment, all the gunfire seemed to be concentrated at the forward end of the train, but when Mercy leaned across a cowering child to peer out the window, she saw horses running alongside the track at a full gallop, ridden by men who wore masks and many, many guns. She said, “Well, shit,” and drew herself back into the aisle with a stumble.
Miss Clay had passed her and was waving back at her. “Hurry up, if you’re coming.”
“I’m working on it!” Mercy said back, and then the order was reversed, with Miss Clay taking the lead and Mercy all but stumbling over her, trying to reach the next door, the next couplers, the next passenger car.
They flung themselves forward into the fifth passenger car, where Mercy had seen Horatio Korman, but when she looked to the seat where he’d glared at her over that copious mustache, he was nowhere to be seen. She made a mental note of it and pushed forward behind Miss Clay.
In the next car they found the fringes of chaos, and they found Mrs. Butterfield standing in the aisle ordering the other passengers into defensive positions. “You, over there!” she pointed at the man with the two little boys. “Put them into that corner, facing outward. Have you any arms?”
He shook his head no.
She shook her head as if this was absolutely uncivilized and said, “Then stay there with them-hold them in place, don’t let them wander. You!” She indicated a pair of older women who were yet young enough to be her daughters. “On the floor, and careful not to flash anything unladylike!”
“Aunt Norene!” Miss Clay exclaimed, reaching her aunt and pulling her back into the compartment.
Mercy followed, scanning the car for the other passengers. Either Mrs. Butterfield had been an excellent director, or baser instincts had shoved every individual into the corners and underneath the windows with great speed and firmness. Seeing nothing else to be done, Mercy ducked into her seat, seized her satchel, and would’ve interrogated the old lady if Miss Clay hadn’t been doing so already.
“Aunt Norene, you must tell us-what’s happening?”
“Rebs! Filthy stinking raiders. Leftovers of Bloody Bill, I bet you-nasty things, and brutish! They came riding up and firing, right into the cabins!” she blustered.
Mercy looked around and didn’t see any windows shot out, but for all she knew, they’d been playing target practice with them in the cars up ahead. “Is anyone hurt?” she asked, already guessing the answer but not knowing what else to say on the subject.
“In here? Heavens, dear girl. I couldn’t say. I should think not, though.”
Gunfire came closer this time, and a bullet ricocheted with a startling ping, though Mercy couldn’t gather where it’d started or where it’d ended up. She heard it tearing through metal and bouncing, landing with a plop.
Someone in the next car up screamed, and she heard the sound of glass being broken yet again, then the sound of return fire coming from inside the train.
Leaning out her own window this time, Mercy saw more horses and more men-at least half a dozen on her side of the train alone-so she skedaddled across the aisle and pushed past the girl who was sitting there already, lying across the seat with her head covered. On that side, she could almost see . . . but not quite.
She reached for the window’s latch, flipped it, and yanked it up so she could get a better look. Craning her face into the wind, Mercy narrowed her eyes against the gusts, and the fierce, cold hurricane of the train’s swift passage. On that side of the train she counted six-no, seven-men on horseback, for a total of maybe fifteen.
She let go of the window and it fell with a sliding snick back into place.
Back on her side of the car, Miss Clay was trying to calm her aunt and urge the woman into a position on the floor. “I’ll pull down the bags,” she was saying. “We’ll use them for cover-I’ll put them between you and the car’s wall, in case of stray bullets.”
Mercy thought this was an eminently sensible plan, and if she’d had any suitcases of her own, she would’ve promptly contributed to the makeshift barricade. In lieu of hard-shelled luggage, she rifled through her bag and felt the chilly heft of the guns. She hesitated, and while she made up her mind, the train picked up speed with a heave. She swayed on her feet and watched out the window as one of the masked men in gray was outpaced. His horse’s legs churned, pumping like the engine’s pistons, but the beast was losing ground.
He looked up into the window, a rifle slung over his shoulder and a six-shooter bouncing roughly in one of his hands. He pointed it up at her, or at the window, or at the train in general-she had no way of knowing what he saw as he peered up from the rollicking back of his frothing horse. Maybe he saw nothing but a reflection of the sky, or the passing trees. But for a moment she could’ve sworn they made eye contact. He lowered the gun and flipped it into his holster, while drawing up hard on his horse’s reins and letting it veer off with a bucking skid.
Mercy realized she had been holding her breath. She released it, and she released her grip on her own chest.
Sensing someone standing nearby, she spun about and found herself face-to-face with Horatio Korman, who was standing so close, he might’ve been sniffing at her hair. The thought fired through her head-So, I’m not the only one the bushwhacker saw in the window-and she said breathlessly, “Mr. Korman! You’ve startled me!”
The ranger said, “You need to get down. Take some cover like a sane woman, Mrs. Lynch.”
“Mr. Korman, tell me what’s going on!”
“How should I know?” he asked without a shrug. “I’m just a passenger here, myself.”
“Guess,” she ordered him.
“All right, I’d guess raiders, then. They look like Rebs to me, so it’s safe to say they’re sworn enemies of yours, and all that.” If there was an accusation buried there, he let it lie deep, and left the surface of the statement sounding blank. “I’m sure the militia boys on board will make short work of them.”
From up front, a riotous wave of artillery cut through the popping blips of gunfire. The difference between the Dreadnought’s cannon and the bushwhacker rifles sounded like the difference between a lone whistler and a church choir.
The engine kicked and leaned, whipping the cars behind it so they swayed on their tracks, back and forth, harder than before, more violently than normal.
“They’ll be blown to bits!” Mrs. Butterfield declared with naked glee.
But the ranger said, “I wouldn’t bet on it. Look at that, can you see? They’re peeling away, heading back into the woods.”
“Maybe they know what’s good for them after all,” the old woman said smugly.
“I reckon they’ve got a pretty fair idea,” said Horatio Korman. “That was just about the fastest raid I ever saw in my life. Look. It’s already over.”
A final spray of Gatling-string bullets spit across the scenery, chasing after the men and horses that Mercy could no longer see through her window. “Wasn’t much of a attack,” she observed.
Mrs. Butterfield said, “Of course not. Weak and cowardly, the lot of them. But I suppose this will give me something to write letters about. We’ve certainly had a bit of excitement already!”
“Excitement?” The ranger snorted softly. “They didn’t even make it on board.” He looked down at the woman, still being squeezed tightly in her niece’s arms.
She scowled up at him. “And who are you to comment on the matter? I know by your voice, if not by your rough demeanor, that you must be a Republican, and I daresay it’s a shame and a mockery for you to board this vessel, given your near-certain sympathies.”
He retorted, “My sympathies are none of your goddamn business. Right now they lean toward getting safe and sound to Utah, and I can assure you I don’t have any desire to get blown up between here and there. So if they got chased off, good. It’s all the same to me.” He flashed Mercy a look that said he’d like to say more, maybe to her, maybe in private someplace.
As if the ranger had not just spoken so harshly, he tipped the brim of his hat to them in turn and said, “Ladies,” as a means of excusing himself and calling the strained conversation to a close.
When he was gone, Miss Clay’s frigid glare settled on Mercy. She asked the nurse, “You know that revolting man?”
“I . . .” She shook her head and took her seat slowly. “He was on the ship I rode to St. Louis. He was a passenger, that’s all.”
“He surely has taken an interest in you.”
“We ain’t friends.”
“Did I hear you tell Captain MacGruder that your husband was from Lexington?”
Mercy told her, “You heard right. And in case you didn’t hear the rest, he died down in Plains, at the camp there. I only found out last week.”
“I’m not strictly certain I believe you.”
“I’m not strictly certain I give a shit,” Mercy said, though she was angry with herself for getting angry at this woman, when she had a story handy that was good enough to cover any suspicious guesses. “But if it makes you feel better . . .” She reached for the satchel again, and pushed past the guns into the wad of papers. She pulled out the sheet that Clara Barton had given her and shoved it under Miss Clay’s nose. “You like to read? Read that. And keep your accusations to yourself.”
Theodora Clay’s eyes skimmed the lines, noted the official stationery, and read enough to satisfy her curiosity. She did not exactly soften, but the rigid lines across her forehead faded. “All right, then. I guess that means I owe you an apology,” she said, but then she didn’t offer one.
Mercy retrieved the paper and lovingly put it back into her bag, next to the note from Captain Sally. “Maybe you owe one to Mr. Korman, too, since he didn’t do anything except tell you the coast was clear.”
Just then, the captain came bursting back through the passenger car with several of his men, including Mr. Purdue and the two blonds who’d first delivered the bad news, who were helping to support an unknown fellow who was bleeding from the shoulder. The captain stopped at Mercy and said, “Mrs. Lynch, you’re a nurse, aren’t you?”
“That’s right. Who told you?”
“A big Texian in the next car up.”
She reached for her bag. “But haven’t you got a doctor on board?”
“We were supposed to,” he said with a note of complaint. “But we don’t, and we’re not picking one up until the next stop. So for now I’ve got a man who could use a little attention, if you’d be so kind as to help us wrap him up.”
“Of course,” she said, happy for the excuse to conclude her awkward talk with Miss Clay.
“Do you have anything useful in that bag of yours?”
“It’s all loaded up with useful things,” she said, and stepped into the aisle behind them. She could tell at a glance that the man wasn’t mortally injured, though his eyes were frantic, like he’d never been hurt this bad before in all his life. But there’s a first time for everything, and this first event was scaring him more than it was hurting him. “Where are you taking him?”
“Back to the last passenger car. It’s only half full, and we can set him down there.”
Mercy followed the small crew back, across the blizzard-wild interchanges between the cars, and into the last compartment of the last passenger sleeper. There, they tried to lay the man down, but he wouldn’t have it. He sat up, protesting, until Mercy had shooed all but the white-haired captain away. The car’s few occupants were just beginning to rise off the floor and reclaim their seats, as the captain told them, “It’s fine, everyone. You can come out again. It was just a weak little attempt at a raid, and it’s over now.”
So while they rose from their hiding places, they watched curiously as Mercy removed the injured man’s shirt down to his waist. The captain took a seat on the other side of the compartment so he could watch the proceedings.
He told the patient, “This is Mrs. Lynch. Her husband died in a camp in Georgia not too long ago. She’s a nurse.”
“I gathered that last part,” the man said. It came out of his chest in a soft gust.
“She’s from Kentucky.”
She smiled politely as if to confirm this, and prodded at the injury. “Captain, could you scare up some clean rags for me, and some water? I bet they’ll have some back in the caboose.”
“I’ll just be a moment,” he said, practically clicking his heels.
The man with the now-naked torso leaned his head against the seat’s high back and asked, “Where’re you from in Kentucky, Mrs. Lynch? And might I ask, where’re you going?”
She didn’t mind answering, if for no other reason than it’d take his mind off the wound. “I’m from Lexington. And I’m headed west to meet up with my daddy. He got hurt not so long ago himself. It’s a long story. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
The loud clap and unclap of the car door announced Captain MacGruder’s return. “Here you go, ma’am,” he said, handing her a bundle of washrags made for dishes and a pitcher full of water. “I hope these’ll work.”
“They’ll work just fine.” She took one of the rags and dunked it into the pitcher, then proceeded to dab away the blood.
“Morris,” he answered her question belatedly. “It’s Private First Class Morris Comstock.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said. “Now, lean forward for me, if you would, please.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, and struggled to accommodate her.
She wiped the back of his shoulder, too, and said, “Well, Private First Class Morris Comstock, I do believe you’ll live to see another day.”
“How do you figure that?”
“If it’d stuck you any lower, you’d be losing a lung right now, and if it was any higher, it would’ve broken your collarbone all to pieces. But as it stands, unless it takes to festering, I think you’re going to be just fine.” She gave him an honest smile that was a little brighter than her professional version, if for no other reason than his own relief was contagious.
“You mean it?”
“I mean it. Let me clean it up and cover it, and we’ll call you all set. This your first time taking lead?”
She handed him a clean rag and said, “Here. Hold this up against it so it stops bleeding. Now lean forward again”-she shoved another rag behind him-“and we’ll plug you up coming and going.” She unrolled some bandages and said to the captain, “I hope nobody else was hurt,” which was her way of asking if anybody was dead. If anyone else had been hurt, they’d be sitting beside Morris Comstock.
“No ma’am,” he answered her. “It was a funny little raid. Didn’t get much accomplished.”
While the injured soldier was still leaning forward, his face closer to Mercy’s, he said quietly, “You know what? I don’t think it was really a raid.”
“You don’t?” she responded quietly in kind.
“I don’t.” When the rear wound was staunched, he leaned back again. “I think they were just taking a look-just checking us out, to see what the engine could do, and how many men we had in the cars. They didn’t even try to board or nothing. They just rode up, fired their guns-mostly into the air, except when they saw fellas in uniform like me-and got a good eyeful.”
Mercy said, still softly, since other passengers were watching, “You think they’ll be back.”
“I sure do. They’ll be back-and let ’em come, that’s what I say. They may’ve gotten an idea of how many men we’ve got, but they didn’t even get a taste of what we can do.”