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Twelve

Dreadnought

A follow-up raid did not come, not immediately and not even soon. For the next few days, all the soldiers were in the very highest state of tense alertness, jumping at each click in the tracks, and leaping into readiness any time the whistle blew. Mercy became almost accustomed to it, as she became accustomed to her seatmates-even as Miss Clay continued to be both aloof to her and, in the nurses estimation, a tad too friendly with the young soldiers, if friendly was the right word. She tolerated their company better than anyone elses, at least, and much to her aunts glee, she spent a fair bit of time being escorted to and from the dining car by whoever was on duty, or passing through.

You never know, burbled Mrs. Butterfield. She might take to a husband yet! Its not too late for her, after all. Theres still time for a few children, if the Lord sees fit to have her matched.

Mercy nodded like always. And when Mrs. Butterfield nodded off, and Miss Clay had wandered back to the caboose (or wherever it was she went when she was gone), Mercy fondled the guns she now wore underneath her cloak. They fit there quite nicely, and no one noticed so long as she didnt do too much wiggling around. Though the cars were heated by steam heat siphoned off the boilers, the windows were thin and they sometimes rattled, and the cars were never quite so toasty as she wouldve liked. So it wasnt strange that she wore the concealing cloak almost all the time. She rather doubted that anyone would notice or care, even if she was spotted sporting weapons; but she enjoyed keeping them a secret, close and unseen up against her body.

At night she settled into the seat that transformed to a bed, nestling into her semi-private space with the divider separating her from even her compartment-mates, for all the difference it made. The divider stifled nothing, and every noise of the trains daily and nightly motion filtered into the strained sleep she managed to catch. But by the end of the first week, she had a system down: She excused herself to the washroom to unfasten her day corset and remove her shoes, then, covered by her ever-present cloak, returned to the compartment to coil beneath a blanket in her narrow sleeping space, where she listened to Mrs. Butterfield snore and to the nocturnal comings and goings of Miss Clay, who slept even more infrequently than Mercy.

In the mornings, she repeated the system in reverse, beginning in the wash area once more and reassuming her personal attire for daylight hours. She also washed her face, brushed her teeth, and combed her hair back into a bun-or sometimes, if she felt particularly inspired, into braids that she pinned into a more elaborate and secure updo. The braids held their position better when she stepped back and forth between the cars-a procedure that was becoming almost unremarkable, though the February wind still clapped her in the face with the force of an irate schoolmarm every time she flipped a lever to let herself out of the Pullman.

She wondered after the men who conducted the train, and wondered how they slept-in shifts, she assumed-and how odd it must be to live and work in constant motion. She supposed that eventually they must become accustomed to it, just as shed become accustomed to the smell of the Robertson Hospital; and she came to trust them as they kept the train moving, always moving, through daylight and darkness, and save for the occasional short stop that never lasted longer than an hour or two, however long it took the boilers to be refilled and the stash of diesel and coal to be replenished.

Until Kansas City.

Shortly before the Kansas City stop, which was meant to be an all-afternoon intermission from the grind of the tracks, the coupler that connected the fifth and sixth passenger cars broke as they whipped around a bend.

It was reported almost immediately, and there were few ways to handle it other than to force a stop and let the disconnected cars catch up. This maneuver was undertaken with no small degree of trepidation from the passengers and crew. In addition to the general suspense of being halted on the tracks and waiting for the trains rear compartments to roll up and collide, there was also a terrific sense of vulnerability. Only a few miles outside the station, the Dreadnought sat parked on its track as if waiting for a wayward duckling to retrieve its position in line. All the passengers, crew, and soldiers sat or stood at attention, watching every window for a hint of danger. No one had forgotten the abortive raid, and no one wanted to see it repeated while they were sitting like those aforementioned ducks.

Miss Clay clutched at her portmanteau and Mrs. Butterfield sat rigid, upright, and propped into a position of defiance as the now-slowed rear cars caught up foot by foot, unstoppable even in their tedious approach.

Ladies and gentlemen, announced one of the blond soldiers, whose name had turned out to be Cyrus Berry. Kindly brace yourselves, he urged. The back cars are going to bump us any second-

And indeed, soon enough on the heel of those words that it almost interrupted them, the back cars collided with the front cars, smacking together in the place where the coupler had failed, and battering against the forward spaces so that luggage toppled down from storage, hats were knocked off of heads, and more than a few people were thrown to their hands and knees on the floor.

Pierce Tankersly, the other blond soldier, came through the front door, asking, Is everyone all right? His query was a bit premature, for no one was yet certain of personal allrightness, and the two little boys by the front window had only just begun to cry.

Mrs. Butterfield answered for the group. I believe well all survive. But tell me, dear lad, what happens now?

Now, we fix it, he said firmly and with a determined expression that told everyone he didnt have the slightest idea how this might be accomplished, but he had every faith that someone, somewhere, had a handle on the situation.

True to his assumptions, a pair of porters and one of the conductors men came along shortly, and while the nervous soldiers kept their arms at the ready and their eyes on the windows, the rail men began a hasty job of affixing the cars together in a temporary manner. Mercy didnt see the whole of their endeavors, but she gathered it had something to do with bolting a new joint into place and praying itd hold until Kansas City. In order to better guarantee this outcome, the Dreadnought pulled rather slowly into town.

Almost immediately after their arrival, Cyrus Berry departed the car and returned to it, passing along a message that was undoubtedly running the length of the train. Ladies and gentlemen, he began again, his arms held out in a bid to command the whole cars attention. Due to the coupler issues between the fifth and sixth car, were going to be spending the night here in town. To make up for the inconvenience and delay, the Union will provide everyone with money enough for a hotel room and supper here in town while repairs are being made. Please see the conductor or one of the porters for details and information about the hotel in question, and how to collect your fees. Well be leaving the West Bottoms Station tomorrow morning at ten oclock, or thats the plan as it stands right now.

Then he tipped his hat to the passengers and moved on to the next car.

Mrs. Butterfield was delighted, and even Theodora Clay seemed pleased. Im forced to admit, I like the sound of a proper bed. These folding jobbies are hard on the neck, dont you think? she asked no one in particular.

Her aunt made murmuring noises of assent.

Absolutely. And to think, its only been a week. Maybe well get lucky and something else will break along the way, Mercy suggested as she gathered her satchel and slipped her head through the strap, so it would hang across her chest.

I dont know if we should hope for that, Miss Clay said. We were fortunate to see the coupler fail so close to town. I dont know about you, but Id be immensely nervous if the train were to limp much farther. We were only going a quarter of our usual speed, these last few miles. Unless, of course, you arent particularly worried about meeting any southern raiders.

Mercy pretended not to hear the implication and said primly, Im certainly not looking forward to any such thing. Then, upon seeing Pierce Tankersly helping the widower and his children find their way to the door, she added a bit more loudly, Though weve got plenty of good company on this train, and Im pretty confident that the boys on board will hold em off just fine, if they do come sniffing back around. Now, if youll excuse me, she said to her seatmates. She stepped out into the aisle behind the two little boys, who were thrilled silly at the prospect of getting off the train, even if only for the night.

She made her way to the exit with baby steps, halting occasionally to allow others to slip in front of her, and finally descended the short iron stairs onto terra firma once more. She bounced on her heels to stretch her legs, and turned her head hard left to right, which resulted in a satisfying crack.

Upon locating the conductor, she collected an envelope that contained an address and some Union bills to cover the afternoon and evening. A porter from the West Bottoms Station pointed her and a few of the other passengers to a nearby street, and they found their way to an unornamented brick establishment in the citys heart as a small herd. The smell of stockyards wafted on every breeze, accompanied by the scent of oil, burning coal, and the hot stink of steel being soldered and pounded.

Mercy looked around and did not see Mrs. Butterfield or Miss Clay, but she smirked to imagine their reaction to the lowbrow quarters theyd be directed to. While she was taking visual stock of her fellow travelers, she spied the back end of Horatio Korman slinking away from the crowd and into a side street. Her eyes followed him around a corner until they could track him no farther.

Wondering what he was up to, she decided to follow him.

The neighborhood smelled no worse than the hospital, and this was only the stench of animals, after all: sheep, cattle, and hogs being shuffled about between markets before they headed for plates. Mercy had grown up around these smells, and could effortlessly ignore them. She walked past the Kansas City Live Stock Exchange with its immense gates and ranch-style signs, back around the station, and then past another stockyard shed somehow missed on the first pass. Much like Fort Chattanooga, most of the people she saw on the street were men, but here and there she saw station passengers or debarkers like herself-mostly in working-class clothing, and mostly white. In fact, that was one of the first things she noticed about the passersby: She didnt see half so many colored people as she did back East.

She spotted one or two, dressed in standard cowboy style with canvas pants, linen shirts, and boots; and she saw one porter on some sort of break from the train station; but that amounted to the whole of the population within her range of vision.

And where had the ranger gone, anyway? Suddenly, she didnt see him.

A hand settled on the small of her back and pushed her forward firmly, but without any violence. A word with you, maam.

Oh. Mr. Korman, there you are. This is getting downright unseemly, she complained as he led her off the main walkway, away from the road, and toward a small sign advertising barbecue that was supplemented by the aroma halo of roast pork and beef.

Its nothing of the kind. This is just two passengers getting acquainted over supper, he said as he urged her up the step and inside the clapboard structure called the Bar None Saloon and Grill. Just then his hand brushed her waist and found something hard. He paused and looked her in the eye, and for a moment Mercy couldve sworn that he almost smiled. Nice guns, he said, even though he couldnt see them.

She allowed herself to be ushered inside the grill, which was dark and smoky, but so thickly packed with the sweet and sharp aura of simmering food that the stockyards might have been a hundred miles away. They took a seat toward the rear, and Korman positioned himself so his back was to the kitchen wall and he faced the front door. Mercy sat in front of him, and as she adjusted herself on the bench, she realized how cold shed become as shed walked the West Bottoms. She peeled off her gloves and felt for her nearly numb ears, then blew into her hands.

Cold out there, she said, more for the act of saying something than to tell him what he already knew.

Yup, he agreed, and extracted himself from his overcoat, which he slapped over the back of an unoccupied chair. Youre not lost, are you? You got yourself checked into the Prairie Dog?

Not yet. I wanted to stretch my legs.

You could pick a nicer part of town to do it in.

This is the only part of town with which Im acquainted, and nobodys bothered me yet except for you.

Yeah, and Im about to bother you some more.

Hows that?

He mightve answered, but someone came over and took their order for a pair of sandwiches and home fries, so the conversation stalled briefly, then came back to life. He continued, A few days ago-that incident with the Rebs.

The raiders?

Raiders, he snorted. They werent raiding shit. He drawled out the word until it sounded like sheet.

She said, That one man-on the horse, right before they left. I thought he was looking at me, through the window. But he wasnt, was he? He was looking at you, behind me. Do you know him? Did you know about the raid?

The ranger sniffed, a gesture that lifted and tilted one wing of his mustache. I was pretty sure from the start that they must be some of Bloody Bills old boys; and when I set eyes on Jesse, that just about cinched it.

But he was wearing a bandanna over his face.

Aw, Id know him anyplace.

Mercy wasnt sure what to make of this information, so she said, But Bills dead, aint he? Hes been dead for years.

And its never stopped his bushwhackers from chasing blue all over Missouri, has it? That was his old band. And though I called em boys, Jesses a little older than me. The rest of them, though. Theyre probably just backwoods kids with nothing better to do, and no intention of wearing a uniform or following orders.

Sounds like you think real highly of them.

The James brothers arent too bad, if you get to know them. But thats beside the point. It wasnt a raid, because Jesse and Frank are too damn smart to run up against something like the Dreadnought with a handful of horses, a hoot, and a holler. Theyre looking for something.

Mercy shook her head. Lord knows what. Aint it enough that the things a big ol Union machine? Cant blame them if they want to take it down.

They cant take it down, he insisted. They arent dogs chasing a wagon, though they wouldnt know what to do if they caught it.

But if you know some of them raiders, cant you ask them?

He let go of the tiny waxed point of his mustache and asked, How exactly would you recommend I go about doing that? I cant just hold up the train for a few days and wait on em to catch up, now, can I?

I dont know. If you were determined enough . . .

Oh, dont go on like that. I need to get west of here, still-its my duty and my job to find out whats going on for my own country. That doesnt leave me a fat lot of time to be dickering around in Kansas, just to see what your grays think they require of a Union engine. All I can figure, he continued, is that there must be something on board thats sparked their interest.

Like what?

He shrugged and leaned back against the wall. I was hoping maybe you had some idea. What do you know about what theyre carrying in those extra cars?

The one behind the caboose, you mean?

That one, sure. And the two behind the engine. Cant be plain old fuel in those two; even a juggernaut like that damn engine dont need half so much to propel it. No, Im thinking theyre bringing something else along.

A pair of sandwiches on hammered metal plates were slapped down in front of them, delaying Mercys response a few moments more. But when she spoke, after swallowing a mouthful of a very fine barbecue sandwich that was almost too spicy for her taste, she said, Bodies.

What?

Theyre carrying bodies-in that back car, anyhow.

Horatio Korman licked his upper lip, which did not remove the full spectrum of sauce that was accumulating on the underside of his facial hair. Well, sure, he told her. Thats the official story.

You dont believe it?

No, I dont believe it. And I dont think your Rebs believe it, either-and I wonder what they know that makes them think chasing the Dreadnoughts worth their time and trouble.

Cant help you there, she told him, and took another bite.

I dont know why I thought you could, he said with the same accusatory gleam in his eye that Miss Clay had been giving her all week, for exactly the opposite reason.

Oh, leave it be, she said with irritation and a half-full mouth. When shed swallowed the whole thing down, she went on. What do you want me to say? I told the captain the truth, same as I told you the truth-and I didnt rat you out to nobody yet, and Im hoping youll treat me the same. My reasons for heading west have nothing to do with the war, and Im sick of it anyway. I dont want a whole trainful of folks hating me because of where I worked and where Im from.

So your sympathies lie not in Virginia? he asked, with a veneer of false innocence.

Dont you go putting words in my mouth. I love my country same as you love yours, but Im not running any mission for my country. Im no spy, and Im too tired to fight for anyone but myself right now. Sometimes, I think I dont have the energy for that, either.

Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?

I didnt ask you to, she snapped. Same as I didnt ask you to pull me off the street and feed me. Just because you and me might be sort of on the same team, thats no excuse for us to hang together. She took another jab at her plate, knowing there was more to it than that. She mumbled, Youre gonna get me in trouble, I swear.

He asked, And what if I do? What do you thinkll happen to you, if they all find out what youre keeping quiet?

She shrugged. Not sure. Maybe they dump me off at the next stop, in the middle of noplace. I dont have the money to pay the rest of the way out to Tacoma again. Maybe I get stuck a thousand miles away from where I need to be, with my daddy maybe dying out there. Or, Jesus, she said suddenly, as it had just occurred to her. Maybe theyll arrest me, and say Im a spy! I cant prove Im not.

Dont be ridiculous. Theyd arrest me before theyd arrest you.

Why? Because youre doing your job in someplace that aint Texas?

Something like that, he said in a way that made her want to ask more questions. Fact is, I think there is a spy on the train-but Im not sure who yet. That coupler didnt break all by its lonesome. Someone wants to sabotage the train so the Rebs can catch it, but it sure aint me. And I cant prove it. But I probably look good for it.

So what are you doing on this train? Knowing that being here is asking for trouble?

He took a deep breath and the last quarter of his sandwich in one bite, and took his time chewing before answering her. He also took a minute to glance around the room, checking the faces he saw for familiarity or malice. Then he asked, How much do you keep up with the newspapers, Mrs. Lynch?

More lately than usually. They gave me something to read while I was coming west.

All right. Then maybe youve heard about a little problem Texas has right now, with some Mexican fellas who went missing all in a bunch. He said this conspiratorially, but not so quietly that everyone would try to overhear whatever secret was being told.

Ive seen something about it, here and there. Mr. Cunningham aboard the Providence-he gave me the background on the situation.

Yeah, Ill bet he did.

Whats that supposed to mean?

Not a damn thing. I imagine hes got opinions on it, and I imagine theyre not altogether different from mine. But its my job, not my opinion, to sort out what became of the dirty brown bastards and what theyre up to. They went wandering north-

To help relocate-

They went wandering north, he talked over her, as if he wasnt really interested in political discussion. And they went wandering right off the edge of the map. Ive been chasing every rumor, snippet of gossip, and wild-eyed fable from every cowhand, cowpoke, rancher, settler, and Injun wholl stand still long enough to talk to me, and none of its making any sense-not at all.

Honestly curious, she asked, What are they saying?

He waved his hand as if to dismiss the whole of it, since none of it could be true. Oh, theyre saying crazy things-completely crazy things. First off, if word can be believed, they went off course by a thousand miles or so. And Ive got to tell you, Mrs. Lynch, Ive known a backwards Mex or two in my time, but Ive never heard of one dumb enough to go a thousand miles off course in the span of a few months.

That does sound unlikely.

It goes well beyond unlikely. And I dont think Mexico knows whats happened to em either-thats what really gets me. Likewise-and Im in a pretty secure position to know-the Republic didnt touch em. Whatever happened happened somewhere out in the West Texas desert hill country, and then something sent those men on some other bizarre quest-

All the way to Utah? she interjected.

Derailed, he stopped and said, Utah? Howd you know that?

Because you told me thats how far you were riding the other day. The Utah territorys a long piece away from West Texas, Id think.

Amazingly far, he confessed. But thats what the intelligence is telling us. Something strange happened, and the group shifted direction, drifting north and west. The last reports of Mexican soldiers have come from the Mormon settlements out there-you know, them folks who have all the wives and whatnot. The Mormons may be swamp-rat crazy themselves, for all I know, but theyre scared to death.

Of a legion of soldiers? Cant say as I blame them. Lord knows itd give me a start to find them in my backyard.

Thats not all there is to it, though, he said, and he shook his head some more, as if there was simply no believing what he was about to say. Reports say these Mexis have gone completely off their rockers. I heard, and he finally leaned forward, willing to whisper, that theyve started eating people.

You shut your mouth! Mercy exclaimed.

But thats what people say-that theyre just mad as hatters, and that somethings gone awful wrong with them. They act senseless, like their brains have leaked right out of their heads, and they dont talk-they dont respond to anything, English or Spanish. Mrs. Lynch, people are going to panic if word gets out and nothing gets done about it!

Well . . . Mercy tried to process the information and wasnt sure how to go about it, so she racked her brain and tried to think of something logical. Do you think its some kind of sickness, like rabies or something? People with rabies will do that, sometimes; bite people- And she cut herself short, because saying so out loud reminded her of the Salvation Army hostel.

The ranger said, If these fellas have some kind of disease, and its so catching that a whole legion of em came down with it and went insane, thats not exactly a comforting thought. Whatevers going on, we need to contain it, and maybe . . . investigate it. Figure out whats wrong, and figure out if we can do something about it. But Ill be damned right to hell if I have the faintest idea whats going on, he said before stuffing bread and potatoes into his mouth.

She said, I wonder if its got something to do with sap.

What, like tree sap? Oh, wait, no. You mean that stupid drug the boys on the front are using these days? I dont see how.

I wouldnt have believed it either, till I wound up in Memphis. I saw some fellas there, some addicts whod used the stuff almost to death. They looked . . . well, like you said. Like corpses. And one of em tried to bite me.

An addict trying to bite a nurse aint quite the same as cannibalism.

She frowned and said, Im not saying it is. Im only saying it looks the same, a little bit. Or maybe Im just crackers. Then she abruptly changed the subject, asking before she had time to forget, Say, you dont know anyplace around here where I could send a telegram, do you?

Id be surprised if there wasnt a Western Union office at the station. You could ask around. Why? Whore you reporting to, anyway?

Nobody but my mother. And the sheriff out in Tacoma, I guess. Im just trying to let folks know that Im still alive, and Im still on my way.

When the meal was over, she thanked him for it and went walking back to the station, where she did indeed find a Western Union and a friendly telegraph operator named Mabel. Mabel was a tiny woman with an eye-patch, and she could work a tap at the speed of lightning.

Mercy sent two messages, precisely as shed told the ranger.

The first went to Washington, and the second went to Virginia.


SHERIFF WILKES I AM WESTBOUND AND PRESENTLY IN KANSAS CITY STOP EXPECT ME WITHIN A FEW WEEKS STOP WILL SEND MORE WORD WHEN I GET CLOSER STOP HOPE ALL IS WELL WITH MY FATHER STOP


DEAR MOMMA PLEASE DO NOT BE ANGRY STOP IM GOING WEST TO VISIT MY DADDY WHO MAY BE DYING STOP IT IS A LONG STORY AND ILL TELL IT TO YOU SOMETIME STOP DO NOT WORRY I HAVE MONEY AND TRAIN TICKETS AND ALL IS FINE STOP EXCEPT FOR I GUESS I SHOULD TELL YOU PHILLIP DIED AND I GOT THE WORD AT THE HOSPITAL STOP GO AHEAD AND PRAY FOR ME STOP I COULD PROBABLY USE IT STOP


After shed paid her fees, Mercy turned to leave, but Mabel stopped her. Mrs. Lynch? I hope you dont mind my asking, but are you riding on the big Union train?

Yes, I am. Thats right.

Could I bother you for a small favor? she asked.

Mercy said, Certainly.

Mabel gathered a small stack of paper and stuffed it into a brown folder. Would you mind dropping these off at the conductors window for me? She gestured down at her left leg, which Mercy only then noticed was missing from the knee down. Ive got a case of the aches today, and the stairs give me real trouble.

Sure, Ill take them, Mercy said, wondering what terrible accident had so badly injured the womans body, if not her spirit. She took the telegrams and left the office with Mabels thanks echoing in her ears, heading down to the station agents office and the window where the conductors collected their itineraries, directions, and other notes.

Down at that window, two men were arguing over tracks and lights. Mercy didnt want to interrupt, so she stood to the side, not quite out of their line of sight but distant enough that she didnt appear to be eavesdropping. And while she waited for them to finish, she did something she really shouldnt have. She knew it was wrong even as she ran her finger along the brown folder, and she knew it was a bad idea as she peeled the cover aside to take a peek within it. But she nonetheless lifted a corner of the folder and glanced at the sheets there, realizing that they werent all notes for the conductor: some were telegrams intended for passengers.

Right there on top, as if Heaven itself had ordained that she read it, she saw a most unusual message. At first it made no sense whatsoever, but she read it, and she puzzled over it, and she slapped the folder shut when the men at the window ceased their bickering and went their separate ways.

It said,


CB ALERT STOP STALL AT KC AS LONG AS POSSIBLE STOP SHENANDOAH APPROACHING FROM OC TOP SPEED STOP SHOULD CATCH TRAIN BEFORE ROCKIES STOP CONFIRM OR DENY CABOOSE BY TOPEKA IF POSSIBLE STOP SEND WORD FROM THERE STOP


Alas, her workmanlike reading skills moved too slowly to give it a second, more through inspection before the conductor spotted her. Once he did, she approached him, to keep from looking too guilty. She handed the folder to the man, bid him good evening, and returned to her hotel room feeling deeply perplexed and revisiting the message in her mind.

By the time she undressed for bed, shed guessed that OC might be Oklahoma City, since KC was so obviously Kansas City. She didnt know what the Shenandoah was, but if it was traveling at top speed, and trying to catch the Dreadnought, she was forced to assume that it must be a mighty piece of machinery indeed. And what did CB mean? Was it someones initials? A code name? A sign-off?

Shenandoah, she whispered to herself. A southern name, for southern places and southern things. Could be a unit or something. She turned over, unable to get very comfortable on the cheap bed, yet grateful enough for it that she wanted to stay awake and enjoy the fact that it wasnt moving. So she stayed up and asked the washbasin against the wall. Or another train?

The last thing that rolled through Mercys mind before her eyes closed and stayed that way was that Ranger Korman was right.

Someone on board was a Rebel spy.

It wasnt her, and she didnt think-based on their conversation over supper-that it was the ranger, either. So whom did that leave?

She sighed, and said, Could be almost anyone, really.

And then she fell asleep.


Eleven | Dreadnought | Thirteen



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