Come morning, Mercy stood on the train station platform with her fellow passengers, waiting for the opportunity to board once more. She noticed a few absences, not out of nosiness, but simply because she’d become accustomed to seeing the same people day in and out for the previous week. Now she saw new faces, too, looking curiously at the awe-inspiring engine and discussing amongst themselves why the train required such an elaborate thing.
The conductor overheard the questions, and Mercy listened to his answer, though she didn’t know how much of it to believe. “True enough, this is a war engine,” he said, patting at the boiler’s side with one gloved hand. “But that doesn’t mean this is a war operation. We’re sending some bodies of boys from the western territories back home, and while we’re at it, we’re bringing this engine out to Tacoma to retrofit it with a different sort of power system.”
One curious man asked, “Whatever do you mean?”
“At present, she’s running on a two-fuel system: diesel and coal steam. She’s the only Union engine of her kind, though I understand the Rebs use diesel engines pretty regularly. In Tacoma, we’re going to see if we can retool her to use straight diesel, like theirs. It’ll give us more power, better speed, and a lighter payload if we can work it out.”
Mercy had a hard time figuring how a liquid fuel would be any lighter than coal, but she was predisposed to disbelieving him, since his story was different from the St. Louis station agent’s-and now that she’d talked to the ranger, and now that she’d seen the telegram that wasn’t meant for her eyes. She’d never quite bought that the war engine was on a peaceful mission, and the longer she looked at it, the more deeply she felt that the train’s backstory was a lie.
Then something dawned on her, seeming so obvious that she should’ve thought of it before. She did her best not to draw anyone’s attention by dashing. Instead, she shuffled back toward the rear end of the train, to the caboose, and the bonus car that trailed bleakly behind with all its windows painted over. There was a guard standing on the platform that connected it to the caboose, but no one else was paying it any mind.
Mercy had no means of telling whether or not anything had come or gone, or been loaded or unloaded. But she spied an older negro porter, and she quietly accosted him. “Excuse me,” she said, turning her body to keep her face and her voice away from the guard, who wasn’t watching her, but might’ve been listening.
“Yes ma’am. How can I help you?”
“I was wondering . . . have those fellows opened that car at all? Taken anything off it, or put anything inside it?”
“Oh no ma’am,” he said with a low, serious voice. He shook his head. “None of us are to go anyplace near it; we was told as soon as it stopped that nobody touches the last car. I even heard-tell that some of the soldiers got a talking-to for getting too close or peeking in the windows. That thing’s sealed up good.”
She said, “Ah,” and thanked him for his time before wandering back to the passenger cars, turning this information over in her mind as she went. If the train was transporting war dead home to rest, why weren’t any of them ever dropped off? She wondered who on earth she could possibly share her suspicions with, then saw the ranger leaning up against one of the pillars supporting the station overhang, an expression on his face like he’d been licking lemons.
“Mr. Korman,” she said. He must have heard her, but he didn’t look at her until she was standing in front of him.
“What?” he asked.
“And a fine morning to you, too, sir,” she said.
“No, it isn’t.”
She asked, “How’s that?”
He spit a gob of tobacco juice in an expert line that ended with a splatter at the foot of the next pillar over. He didn’t point, but he nodded his head toward a spot by the train where two dark-haired men were chatting quietly, their backs to Mercy and Horatio Korman. “You see that?”
“See what? Those two?” The moment she said this, one of them pivoted on a sharp-booted heel, casting a wary glance across the crowd before returning to his soft conversation. His face had a shape to it that might’ve been part Indian, with a strong profile and skin that was a shade or two darker than her own. He had thick black eyebrows that had been groomed or combed, or merely grew in an unlikely but flattering shape. He and his companion were not speaking English, Mercy could tell, even though she couldn’t make out any of their particular words. Their chatter had a different rhythm, and flowed faster-or maybe it only sounded faster, since the individual syllables meant nothing to her.
Temporarily knocked off topic, Mercy asked, “Really? What are they doing here? They’re going to ride the train with us?”
“Looks like it.”
She thought about this, and then said, “Maybe you ought to talk to them. Maybe they’re here for the same reason as you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“What’s so ridiculous about that? You want to know what happened to their troops; maybe they want to know what happened to them, too. Look at them: they’re wearing suits, or uniforms of some sort. Maybe they’re military men themselves.” She squinted, not making out any insignia.
“They ain’t no soldiers. They’re some kind of government policemen or somesuch. You’re probably right about what they’re after, but there’s nothing they can contribute to the search.”
She demanded, “How do you figure that?”
“Like I told you the other night, they don’t know any more about it than we do. I’ve got all the best information at hand, and I’ve busted tail and greased palms to get it. I’m closer to learning the truth than anybody on the continent, and that includes the emperor’s cowpokes.”
She gave a half shrug and said, “Well, they’ve gotten this far, same as you. They can’t be all useless.”
“Hush up, woman. They’re trouble, is what they are. And I don’t like trouble.”
“Something tells me that’s not altogether true.”
His mustache twitched in an almost-smile, like when he’d discovered the guns under her cloak. “You might have me there. But I don’t like seeing them. No good can come of it.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met any Mexicans before.”
“They’re tyrants, and imperialists, every last one of them.” If he’d been holding any more tobacco in his lip, he no doubt would’ve used it to chase the sentence out of his mouth.
“And I guess you’ve talked to every last one of them, to be so sure of that.”
The ranger reached for his hat to tip it sarcastically and, no doubt, walk away from the conversation, but Mercy stopped him by saying, “Hey, let me ask you something. You know anything about a . . . a train?” She went with her best guess. “Called the Shenandoah?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it.”
“Is it . . .” She wasn’t sure where she was headed, but she fished regardless. “Is it a particularly fast train?”
“As far as I’ve heard. Rolls for you Rebs, I think. Supposed to be pretty much the swiftest of the swifties,” he said, meaning the lightweight hybrid engines that were notorious for their speed. They’d been designed and mostly built in Texas, some of them experimental, as the Texians had searched for more ways to make use of their oil.
She stood there, nodding slowly and wondering how much she should tell him. He’d already made plain that he didn’t care what the Rebs wanted with the train. Then again, he might’ve been lying, or he might care if he thought there were spies on board. Anyway, it wasn’t like she had anybody else to tell.
While she was still pondering, he said, “What makes you ask, anyway?”
She would’ve answered, too, if the whistle hadn’t chosen that precise moment to blow, causing the few children present to cover their ears and grimace, and the milling adults to cluster tighter together, pressing forward to the passenger cars in anticipation of boarding or reboarding.
“Never mind,” she said instead. “We can talk about it later.”
She walked away from him and joined the press of people. As the crowd thickened, she was more and more likely to be spotted conspiring with the ranger; and although she was the only one who knew he was a ranger, everyone had already gathered that he was a Texian, and she didn’t want to join him as a pariah. She understood why he would prefer to keep his status as a law enforcer quiet, though: military men like to have a hierarchy. They wouldn’t have liked to think that someone outside that hierarchy was hanging around, wearing guns, and from a strictly legal standpoint, they wouldn’t have any authority over him. But they could make his life difficult, especially in such a confined mode of transport.
Back on board the train, Mercy was surprised to note that Mrs. Butterfield and Miss Clay had beaten her to the compartment. She was even more surprised, and openly curious, to note that the two Mexican men had been assigned to her own car. The two ladies opposite her were not whispering, just conversing about the newcomers in their normal voices.
“I heard them speaking Spanish,” said Mrs. Butterfield. “Obviously I don’t understand a word of it, but that one fellow there, the taller one, he looks almost white, doesn’t he?”
“He might be white,” Theodora Clay pointed out. “There are still plenty of Spaniards in Mexico.”
“Why? Wasn’t there some kind of . . . I don’t know . . . revolution?” Mrs. Butterfield asked vaguely.
Her niece replied, “Several of them. But I wonder why they’re on board, heading north and west? That sounds like the wrong direction altogether, don’t you think? They aren’t dressed for the weather, I can tell you that much.”
Mercy suggested, “Why don’t you ask them, if you really want to know?”
Mrs. Butterfield shuddered, and gave Mercy a look that all but said, Good heavens, girl. I thought I knew you! Instead, she told the nurse, “I’m sure I’m not interested in making any strange new friends on this occasion. Besides, they probably don’t speak English. And they’re all Catholics anyway.”
“I bet they do speak English,” Mercy argued. “It’s pretty hard to find your way around if you don’t speak the language, and they’ve made it this far north all right.”
Miss Clay arched an eyebrow, lifting it like a dare. “Why don’t you go chat them up, then?”
Mercy leaned back in her seat and said, “You’re the one who’s dying to know. I was only saying that if you were that desperate, you could just ask.”
“Why?” Miss Clay asked.
Mercy didn’t understand. “Why what?”
“Why aren’t you interested? I think interest is positively natural.”
She narrowed her eyes and replied, “I’m inclined to mind my own business, is all.”
But later on that day, nearly up to evening, Mercy found her way back to the caboose in search of supper, and there she found the two Mexicans seated at a table with Captain MacGruder and the injured (but relatively able-bodied) Morris Comstock. Morris smiled and waved, and the captain dipped his hat at her, which gave her the perfect excuse to join them. She ordered a cup of tea and some biscuits with a tiny pot of jam and carried them over to the seat the men had cleared in her behalf.
“Gentlemen,” she said, settling herself. She made a point of making eye contact with the two Mexicans, for the sheer novelty if nothing else. They seemed to find her presence peculiar, but they behaved like the gentlemen she’d accused them of being, and murmured greetings in response.
“Mrs. Lynch,” said the captain. “Good to see you again. We were just having a little talk with these two fellows here. They’re from Mexico.”
Morris said, “We were giving them a friendly warning, too. About that Texian riding in the sixth car. He’s a mean-looking bastard, and I hope he don’t make problems for these folks.” However, he said it with a gleam that implied he might not be too disappointed at the chance to reprimand the ranger.
MacGruder cleared his throat and said more diplomatically, “I understand you’re acquainted with the Republican in question. Came out on the same riverboat, to St. Louis, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right. I don’t believe it’s come up before, though. How did you know?”
“Miss Clay might have mentioned it, in passing.”
“Se~nora,” said the darker of the two men, the one she’d seen at the station with the uncommonly tidy eyebrows. “Please allow me to introduce myself: I am Javier Tom'as Ignacio Galeano.” He said the names in one long string that sounded like music. “And this is my associate, Frederico Maria Gonsalez Portilla. We are . . . inspectors. From the Empire of Mexico. We do not intend to cause a stir aboard this train; we are only in the process of discovering what has happened to a lost legion of our nation’s soldiers.”
Mercy was glad his English was so good. She didn’t need to strain to understand him, and she didn’t feel that idiotic compulsion to speak loudly. She said, “I’ve heard about that-it’s in the newspapers, you know.”
His fellow inspector said, “Yes, we are aware that it has made your papers. It is a great mystery, is it not?”
“A great mystery indeed,” she agreed, feeling a tiny thrill over the conversation with a foreigner. She’d known plenty of northerners and southerners, but she’d never met anybody who was from a-whole-nother country before. Except Gordon Rand, and he didn’t hardly count.
Inspector Galeano fretted with his napkin and said, “If only we knew what had happened, out in the west of Tejas.” He called the Republic by the name it’d worn as a Mexican state.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
He told her, “Something occurred, and it sent them off course, up past the low, hot country and north into the mountains. We have learned that they made it as far as the territory of the . . . of the . . .” He searched his English vocabulary for a word, but failed to find it.
“Utah,” Morris Comstock provided. “Where the Mormons live, with all them wives.”
“Mormons, yes. The religious people. Some of them have made reports . . . terrible reports.”
Mercy almost forgot that she wasn’t supposed to know any of this, but managed to stop herself from exclaiming about the cannibalism before anyone could ask her how she’d come by the information. Instead, she said, “I’m sorry to hear that. Do you have any idea what happened? Do you think the Texians did something . . . rash?”
Inspector Portilla’s forehead crinkled at the use of rash, but he gleaned the context and said, “It’s always possible. But we do not think that is the case. We have had reports that some Texians are implicated as well.”
“What kind of reports? Terrible reports?” she asked.
“Equally terrible, yes. We believe”-he exchanged a glance with Inspector Galeano, who nodded to affirm that this was safe to share-“that there may be an illness of some sort.”
“That’s possible,” Mercy said sagely. “Or a . . . a poison, or something.” Then, to forestall any questions about her undue interest, she said, “I’m a nurse. This stuff’s interesting to me.”
“A nurse?” said Inspector Galeano. “We were told there would be a doctor on the train, but we’ve heard of no such-”
Morris Comstock interrupted. “We were supposed to pick one up in Kansas City, but he never showed. So now we’re supposed to have one in Topeka, maybe. I swear, I think they’re just telling us tales.”
The captain crossed his arms, leaned back, and said to the Mexicans, “Mrs. Lynch is the one who patched up poor Morris here, when he got winged during that raid.”
Inspector Galeano wore a look of intense interest. He bent forward, laid one arm on the table, and gestured with the other hand. “We only developed this idea very recently, from inteligencia that found us in Missouri. But perhaps I can ask you this question-and I hope you will not consider me . . .” He shuffled through his vocabulary for a word, then found it. “Rude.”
“Fire away,” she told him, hoping that she looked the very picture of enthusiastic innocence.
He said, “Very good. These are the facts as we understand them: A partial force of soldiers was sent from a presidio in Saltillo. They met with commanders and acquired more personnel in El Paso. At the time, their numbers were approximately six hundred and fifty. They traveled east, toward the middle of the old state, near Abilene. From there they were to march on to Lubbock, and up to the settlement at Oneida-called Amarillo by your people. By then they had added another hundred settlers to their number. But they never reached Lubbock.”
She observed, “That many people don’t just vanish into thin air.”
“Nor did these,” he agreed. “They’ve been glimpsed, and there are signs of their passing, but the signs are . . .” He retreated to his original description, finding none other that suited the gravity of the situation. “Terrible. They wander, driven by the weather or whatever boundaries they encounter, bouncing from place to place, and . . . and . . . it is like a herd of starving goats, everywhere they go! They leave nothing behind-they consume all food, all plants and crops, all animals . . . and possibly . . . all the people they meet!”
“People!” Mercy gasped for dramatic effect, and squeezed one of her biscuits until it fragmented in her hand. She let its crumbs fall to the plate, and left them unattended.
“Yes, people! The few who have escaped tell such stories. The missing soldiers and settlers have taken on an awful appearance, thin and hungry. Their skin has turned gray, and they no longer speak except to groan or scream. They pay no attention to their clothing, or their bodies; and some of them bear signs of violent injuries. But these wounded men-and women: as I said, there are settlers among them-they do not fall down or die, though they look like they are dead. Now, tell me, Nurse Lynch, do you know of any poison or illness that can cause such a thing?”
Her instinct was to blurt, Yes! but she gave it half a minute of measured consideration while she nibbled one of the intact biscuits. After all, Ranger Korman hadn’t taken her seriously, and she didn’t know these men half so well. Finally, she said, “Well, I’ve known of men poisoned by putrid foods, canned goods and the like, from battlefield stores. Sometimes those men go a bit senseless. But this sounds to me more like like sap-poisoning.”
Inspector Galeano asked, “Sap-poisoning?” and Captain MacGruder looked like he was next in line with questions.
“There’s this drug that the boys use out on the front. Gotten real popular in the last three or four years. When the addicts came into my old hospital, we called ’em ‘wheezers’ because they breathed all funny. And those fellas who use too much of it . . . they go crazy. I never saw any as crazy as what you’re talking about, but I’ve seen close.” Memphis. The Salvation Army. Irvin, who bites.
Captain MacGruder said, “I’ve seen a few sap-heads in my time, but never as bad as that.” He tapped his fingers on the edge of the table. “They make it out of a gas, you know.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Nasty yellow stuff. They get it from somewhere out west-I’m not sure where, but someplace so far west, they’ve got volcanoes. That’s all I know. They bring it in by dirigible. Pirates run the whole operation, I think. Can’t think of anyone else nutty enough to tangle with it.”
The inspectors sat upright with a snap. “Really?” said Inspector Galeano. “You must tell us more! Se~nora Lynch, you said you’d seen it make men loco?”
She hesitated, but they looked at her with such an eager air of expectation that she had to say something. “You have to understand, this was a long way from West Texas. And Mexico, for that matter.”
“That’s fine,” Inspector Portilla insisted. “Go on, por favor.”
Mercy spoke not a word of Spanish, but she knew a “please” when she heard it, so she told them the truth. “There was a mission, a place for veterans there. And upstairs were men who’d been separated out from the rest. They were . . . they were like you said.” She nodded at Inspector Galeano. “Thin, and their skin wasn’t the right color, and they were starting to look like . . . like corpses.” The rest came out in a burst. “And one of them tried to bite my hand. I thought he was only trying to lash out at me, ’cause he was mad that I was poking him and prodding him, but . . . no.” She shook her head side to side with fervor. “He wasn’t trying to eat me, or anything. He was just-”
“Trying to chew on your flesh? Se~nora,” Inspector Portilla pleaded. Then he turned to Captain MacGruder. “You said this was made from gas? Flown in by dirigibles?”
“That’s my understanding,” he replied.
“Then perhaps we can solve two mysteries at once!” the inspector exclaimed. Then he dropped his voice and told them, “A large unregistered dirigible crashed out in West Texas, right around the same time-and the same place-that our forces first disappeared. We believe it originated on the northwest coast, but we can’t be certain.”
Mercy gasped. “You don’t think-”
He went on, “I don’t know what to think. But what if this airship was carrying sap?”
The captain presented another possibility. “Or a load of gas to be processed into sap.”
Everyone fell silent, astonished by the prospect of it-and, frankly, not believing it. Mercy said slowly, “Surely . . . surely if it’s just gas, it would just . . . go away? Rise up into the air? Or maybe blow up, like hydrogen does.”
Captain MacGruder agreed. “Surely it wouldn’t be concentrated enough to . . . to . . . contaminate all those people.”
Inspector Portilla sighed. “You are probably right. But still, it is something to think about,” he told them. Then he excused himself from the table, and his fellow inspector left as well.
Left alone with the Union men, Mercy said, “Damn, I hope that’s not right. I can’t imagine it’s right. Can you? You’ve been on the fronts, haven’t you? Have you seen the men who lie around and look like corpses?”
“I’ve seen sap-heads, but nothing as bad as what they’re describing-or what you described, either. I don’t like to put it this way, but men who dull their senses with drugs or drink or anything else . . . they don’t live too long on a battlefield. But I’ve seen the glassy eyes, and the skin that starts to look like it’s drying out and going a funny color. Don’t hate me for saying so, but men like that are virtually no good to me, not out on the field. If they make themselves into cannon fodder, that’s probably the best use to be made of ’em.”
“Oh, I understand,” she said. “You’ve got a job to do out there.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said. He might’ve been on the verge of saying more, but the caboose door opened and Malverne Purdue entered with a disgusted look that blossomed into a fake smile. “Men. Mrs. Lynch. So good to find you here.”
Morris Comstock said it first. “Actually, we was just leaving. Sorry. Have yourself a fine supper, though,” he added. Then he pulled himself up out of the chair and followed the captain back through the same door, holding it open for Mercy, in case she wanted to follow.
She said, “Thanks, but I’ll be along in a bit. I might ask for another cup of tea, something to settle my stomach.”
The captain nodded as if to say, Suit yourself. The door smacked shut behind him.
Mercy finished the last few sips of her now-tepid tea and went for a refresher. When she returned to her seat, she found that the scientist had taken the captain’s spot, and he obviously expected her to join him. She smiled tightly.
“Mr. Purdue,” she greeted him.
“Mrs. Lynch. Nice to see you, of course.”
“Likewise, I’m sure.”
He withdrew a flask and poured some of its contents into his coffee. Mercy thought it smelled like whiskey, but that wasn’t something she cared about, so she didn’t remark it. He said, “Those foreigners who just left the car before I came-I don’t suppose you had a chance to talk to them, did you?”
“A little bit,” she confirmed. “They were just in here, sitting with Captain MacGruder and Mr. Comstock. They invited me to join them, so I did.”
“How very civilized of you,” he said. Some nasty sentiment seemed to underlie the statement, but his sharp-featured face remained composed in a very portrait of politeness. “If you don’t mind my asking, what was the topic of conversation? I find it difficult to believe that such a diverse group could find much to talk about. Except, perhaps, a mutual dislike of Republicans.”
Because it wasn’t a secret (Lord knew, it’d made enough newspapers), she said, “We were talking about those missing Mexicans out in Texas. That legion that up and disappeared a few months ago.”
“Ah, I see. A relatively safe topic, that.”
“What makes you say so?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Politics are funny,” he said. “But since that Texian is back in his own seat, I guess it gave the rest of the lads something to bond over, since none of them want him on board. It’s a shell game, really. Or, it’s like the old logic puzzles, about how to cross a river with a lion, a goat, an elephant, and . . . oh, I don’t know. Some other assortment of animals that may or may not want to eat one another.” Malverne Purdue took a teaspoon, swirled his mixture of coffee and alcohol, then brought the cup to his lips and took a draft too big to be called a sip.
“I don’t follow you,” Mercy replied.
He gestured with the teaspoon as he spoke. “It’s like this: On board this train we have a great contingent of Union soldiers,” he said, tripping over the word soldiers as if he would’ve liked to say something less complimentary. “We also have at least one Texian, a pair of Mexicans, and probably a southern sympathizer or two someplace.”
“Sympathizers?” she said. “I’m sure I haven’t spotted any.”
“You been on the lookout?” he asked. When she didn’t answer, he went on. “We might as well assume it, ever since St. Louis. Can’t count on anyone in that bloodied-up territory. Bushwhackers, jaywalkers . . . I wouldn’t trust any of them as far as I could throw the Dreadnought. If there’s not a spy or two somewhere on board, I’ll eat my hat.”
“That’s a threat I’m bound to remember.”
“Just take it as a warning to watch your words, and keep your eyes open.” His own eyes narrowed down to slits, then opened again as if realizing how wicked that expression made him look. He told her, “We’re not safe here, Mrs. Lynch. None of us are. We’re a target about a dozen cars long, fixed on a track that can be butchered with a few sticks of dynamite. And anything’s a possibility. I haven’t lived this long by assuming the best of people.”
“Spoken like a spy,” she said flippantly.
“A spy?” He sniffed a little laugh. “If that’s what I was doing with my days, I’d demand a larger paycheck. No, I’m just what was advertised: a scientist, in service to my state and my nation.”
In response to this Mercy asked, “How so? What’s your job here, on this train?”
The teaspoon went into action again, swerving around in the space in front of him. He wove it like a wand, as if to distract her. “Oh, structural things, you understand. It’s my job to see that the train and its engine run steady, and that there aren’t any glitches with the mechanics of the operation.”
“So the coupler breaking-that was the sort of problem you’re meant to catch?”
The scientist sneered. “Problem? Is that what you’d call it?”
“Train bodies aren’t my specialty. What would you call it, if not a problem?”
“I’d call it sabotage,” he grumbled.
“Sabotage! That’s quite a claim.”
The teaspoon snapped down with a clack. “It’s no claim. It’s a fact. Someone sprang that coupler, obvious as can be. They break sometimes, sure-I’ve seen it myself, and I know it’s no rare event-but this was altered. Broken. Intended to fail.”
“Have you said anything to the captain?” she asked.
“He was the first person I told.”
“That’s strange,” she observed. “I would’ve thought that if a spy or criminal was on board, the captain would have had all the soldiers out searching the cars, or asking lots of questions.”
He made a face and said, “What would be the point? If there’s a spy, he-or she-isn’t going to talk just because someone asks about it, and there probably isn’t any proof. All we can do is keep a closer eye on the train itself, and the couplers, and the cars.” His voice trailed off.
Mercy had the very acute feeling that he did not actually mean that they should watch the passenger cars. Whatever he cared about was not riding along in a Pullman; it was being towed in one of the other, more mysterious cars-either the hearse in the back (as she’d begun to think of the car that held the corpses), or the cars immediately behind the Dreadnought engine itself.
He sat there, temporarily lost in thought. Mercy interrupted his reverie by saying, “You’re right. All we can do is keep our eyes open. Watch the cars. Make sure no one-”
“Really,” it was his turn to interrupt, “we ought to watch each other.”
Then he collected his diluted coffee and retreated from the table, back into the next car up.
For all that Mercy instinctively loathed the man, she had to agree with him there. And, as a matter of self-preservation, she suspected she ought to keep a very close eye on Mr. Malverne Purdue indeed.