Topeka came and went, and with its passing, the Dreadnought acquired the oft-promised physician, an Indianan named Levine Stinchcomb. He was a skeletal man, and less elderly than the slowness of his movements and the stiffness of his speech might lead one to suspect on first glance; Mercy had him figured for a man of fifty, at the outside. His hair was salted with gray, and his hands had a long, lean look to them as if he were born to play piano-though whether or not he did, the nurse never thought to ask.
Dr. Stinchcomb greeted Mercy as a matter of professional courtesy, or possibly because Captain MacGruder made a point of introducing them, in case it proved useful in the future. The good doctor struck her as a man who was generally kind, if slightly detached, and over tea she learned that he’d served the Union as a field doctor in northern Tennessee for over a year. He was not much inclined to conversation, but he was pleasant enough in a quiet way, and Mercy decided that she liked him, and was glad to have him aboard.
This was significant because she’d known more than a few doctors whom she would have been happy to toss off the back of the train. But Stinchcomb, she concluded, might be useful-or, failing usefulness, he was at least unlikely to get in the way.
After tea, he retreated to his compartment in the second passenger car, and she saw little of him thereafter.
Topeka also saw the arrival and departure of a few other passengers, which was to be expected. Along with the doctor, cabin gossip told Mercy that the train had gained a young married couple who had freshly eloped and were on their way to Denver to explain things to the young lady’s parents; three cowboys, one of them another Mexican man by birth and blood; and two women who could have best been described as “ladies of ill-repute.” Mercy didn’t have any particular problem with their profession, and they were friendly enough with everyone, though Theodora Clay took a dim view of their presence and did her best to scowl them along their way any time they passed through on the way to the caboose.
Mercy took it upon herself to befriend them, if only to tweak Miss Clay’s nose about it. She found the women to be uneducated but bright, much like herself. Their names were Judith Gilbert and Rowena Winfield, respectively. They, too, would debark in Denver, so they’d be present for only another week.
The ever-changing social climate of the train was well matched with its constant movement, the ever-present jogging back and forth, the incessant lunging and lurching and rattling of the cars as they counted the miles in ties and tracks. It became second nature, after a while, for Mercy to introduce herself to strangers knowing that they’d part still strangers within days; just as it was second nature, after a while, to ballast and balance every time she rose from her seat, working the train’s side-to-side momentum into the rhythm of her steps. Even sleeping got easier, though it never became easy. But in time that, too, became a tolerable habit-the perpetual low-grade fatigue brought on by never sleeping enough, and never sleeping well . . . though sleeping quite often, for there was so little else to do.
Though the days rolled together smoothly, if dully, there were hints that things were not perfectly well.
In Topeka, the passengers had not been permitted to leave the train, even to stretch their legs; and there were moments of tension back around the rear-end hearse. She’d heard men arguing, and Malverne Purdue’s voice rising with an attempt at command. No one would tell her what the trouble had been, and she’d had no good reason to go poking around, but she’d heard rumors here and there that another coupler had been on the verge of breaking-whether from sabotage or wear and tear, no one was inclined to say.
Whatever was being so carefully guarded up front was also posing a problem. One night she overheard the captain raising his voice-at Purdue, she’d gathered, though she caught only one phrase of it, carried on the breeze as she lounged in the second passenger car with Judith and Rowena, who were teaching her how to play gin rummy.
“. . . and don’t worry about that car, it’s my responsibility-stick with your own!”
All three of their heads had lifted at that, for it had been strangely loud, shooting into the window behind them by some trick of acoustics.
Judith said, “Whatever they’re bickering about, I’m siding with the captain.”
She was taller, blonder, and fuller figured than her companion, with ringlets that never seemed to fail and a porcelain complexion that blushed as pretty as a peach. Rowena was the smaller and darker of the two, and her form was less impressive; but it was Mercy’s opinion that she was by far the more attractive. Where Judith had plain features but fine coloring, Rowena had the coal-colored hair of the black Irish, and the periwinkle eyes to offset it.
Rowena said, “Damn straight,” and played a card. “I don’t like the scientist-that is, if he is what he says he is. He’s up to something. It’s those weaselly little eyes, and that nasty little smile.” She shook her head. “The captain, though, he’s a looker, with that frosty hair and the face of a boy. The uniform don’t hurt him none, either.”
Mercy said, “It’s funny what they say about men in uniform-how people think women just can’t resist ’em. Fact is, I think we’re just pleased to see a man groomed, bathed, and wearing clothes that fit him.”
Captain MacGruder selected this moment to come blasting into the car, in the process of passing through it and toward the back of the train. His boyish face was red with rage, and set in a series of angry lines. He did not notice the women-in fact, he seemed not to notice anything but the next door, as he grabbed it, yanked it open, and flung himself through it, as if to put as much distance and as many barriers between himself and Malverne Purdue as humanly possible.
Mercy voiced this last thought aloud, and Judith said, “Can you blame him? Wait for it. Weasel-nose will be along in his wake, any second now.”
Sure enough, the forward door opened with somewhat less violence and Malverne Purdue came slinking through it, smoothing his carrot-colored coif and behaving as if he was quite certain that no one had heard him receive the dressing-down. He saw the women and flashed them one of his smarmy grins that always verged on a look of distaste, touched his hat to them, and followed after the captain.
Judith raised both eyebrows behind him and said, “My! I wonder what that was about.”
The game continued, and soon they played against the backdrop of a flat Kansas sky that was taking on strips and streaks of gold, pink, and the shade of new bluebonnets. Rowena had a flask filled with apricot-flavored brandy, and she passed it around, making Mercy feel like quite the rebel. Drinking brandy and playing cards with prostitutes was not something she’d ever imagined herself doing . . . but ,well, things changed, didn’t they? And given another couple of weeks, she’d never see any of these people again, anyway. She found it difficult to care what her mother would say if she only knew, and even more difficult to care what her father would think, wherever he was, if he was still alive.
Sunset took forever; with no mountains or hills for it to fall behind, the orb only sank lower and lower in the sky, creeping toward a horizon line that never seemed to come. The warm light belied the chill outside, and the passenger cars were bathed in a rose-colored glow even as the riders rubbed their hands together and breathed into their fingers, or gathered over the steam vents.
Porters came through on the heels of the sun’s retreating rays, lighting the gas lamps that were placed on either side of each door, protected by reinforced glass so the light wouldn’t blow out with the opening and closing of these same portals. The burning yellow and white lights brightened the seating areas even as the sun outside began to set.
“Isn’t that something!” Mercy said, leaning her head to see more directly west out the window.
Rowena asked, “The sunset?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prettier one.”
She kept her stare fixed out the window even as the effects of the evening’s lovely onset waned. She couldn’t quite be certain, but she was almost . . . nearly . . . just about positive she could see something shadowed in black leaping and loping up toward the train.
Judith followed her gaze and likewise tried to focus on the dark dots of peculiar shape and size, out to the south and incoming-until, yes, they were both convinced of it. And when Rowena added her eyes to the concentrated staring, she, too, wondered if there wasn’t something approaching, and approaching fast.
“Mercy-” Judith said her name like a question or a prayer. “Mercy, what on earth is that?”
Mercy demurred, “I couldn’t say. . . .”
And it didn’t matter what she said, or if she said it. Even from her limited view at the window, she could see four . . . no, five . . . bouncing, rolling things coming across the plains at a pace that confounded the three women.
Someone in a seat behind them breathed, “Monstrous!”
Before much else could be added to that assessment, soldiers came running in through the forward door, toward the aft and the next car, shouting, “Everyone stay calm!” at a group of people who were too confused to be very panicked yet. But as order went out, and uniformed men went tearing to and fro in small groups, the passengers experienced earnest concern, followed by excessive fright.
Judith asked, “What do we do?” and no one seemed to know. She and Rowena both looked at Mercy as if the nurse ought to have some idea. She didn’t, but she’d learned over long shifts at the hospital that if people looked to you for directions, you gave them some directions, even if all you were doing was getting them out of the way.
Remembering the previous, abortive raid, Mercy pointed up at the luggage bays high overhead, and to the storage blocks to either side of the compartment. “Get all your stuff down,” she said. Barricade yourselves in, and keep your head low.”
Rowena squeaked, “What about you?”
“I’m going to head back to my compartment,” she said. “Stay down. When the shooting starts-”
“When the shooting starts?” Judith asked.
“That’s right, when it starts. You don’t want to have your pretty face up like a big old target, now do you?” She stood up straight and stared out the window at the machines, which were definitely rolling, driving up over the uneven plains and bouncing as they approached, popping over the prairie dog mounds and jostling airward after clipping small gullies or ravines.
As the raiders drew closer, Mercy could see that their machines were three-wheeled on triangle-shaped frames, with bodies like beetles and glass windshields that looked as if they might’ve been scavenged from an airship. The windows were thick and cloudy, revealing little of the men inside except for foggy shapes, at least at their present distance.
She turned away from the window and looked around at the rest of the passengers in the car. “Y’all heard me, too, didn’t you? Get all your things out of the luggage bays and make a fort. Do it! All of you!” she barked when some of the men just stared, or the women were sluggish. “We don’t have but a few minutes before they’re on us!”
Watching the windows with one eye, she began a sideways run for the aft door; and as she made her first steps, she heard a rushing roar, and felt the train surge forward. Someone had thrown on more coal or squeezed more diesel into the engine, and they were definitely moving at a swifter clip.
In the next car she found more soldiers, more passengers, and more restless fear. She didn’t see the captain or the Texian or anyone else she might’ve looked for in case of an emergency, but Malverne Purdue was wrestling into a holster and fiddling with guns, as if he had used them before, but not too often or too expertly.
A little girl in a corner was clinging to the hand of a woman who must be her grandmother, who looked every bit as terrified as the child. The older woman caught Mercy’s eyes and asked, “What’s going on? Dear, what should we do?”
The soldiers were shouting orders back and forth at one another, or confirming orders, or spreading information up and down the line. Whatever they were doing, they did it loudly, and they did not address the passengers even when directly asked to do so. Mercy understood the necessity, whether she liked it or not, so she reiterated her instructions from the previous car. Then, after a pounding of feet that took most of the soldiers out the forward door, she held up her hands.
“Folks, we’re going to need to keep the aisles clear, you understand me? Did everyone hear what I told this lady here, and this little girl? About getting down your luggage and ducking down behind it?”
Murmurs and nods went around, and some of the faster listeners began opening bays and storage panels; hauling out suitcases, satchels, boxes, bags, and anything else large enough to cover any part of any body; and throwing them into the compartments.
“Everyone, now, you understand? Stay out of the aisles, and don’t do any peeking out the windows.”
Malverne Purdue, who was now fighting with the buckle of a gunbelt, raised his voice and said, “I want everyone to listen to this lady. She’s giving you good advice.” Once the belt was secured, and he was wearing no fewer than four guns up front, and one tucked into the back of his pants like a pirate, he said to Mercy, “I know I’m not an officer and it’s not your job to obey me, so don’t remind me, but: take what you’re saying from car to car. Keep these people out of the path; there’s going to be plenty of coming and going.”
She nodded and they headed off in opposite directions-him to the front, after his fellows, and she to the rear, toward her own compartment.
The wind between the cars was ice on her ears and in her lungs as she breathed one shocked chestful of air that made her eyes water. The train was moving so fast that the tracks underneath the couplers poured past as smoothly as a ribbon of water. If Mercy looked at it for more than a fraction of a second, it made her dizzy.
She gripped the rails and stepped onto the next small platform, then yanked the door open.
By the time she was back in her own car, she was breathless, disheveled, and half frozen. She said, “Excuse me,” and pushed past Mrs. Butterfield, who was perched on the edge of her compartment seat and demanding of Miss Clay, “What do you see? What are they doing?”
Theodora Clay had her hands and face pressed against the window, her breath fogging the pane and the tip of her nose going red with the cold. She said, “I see five of those bizarre contraptions. They’re gaining ground, but not very quickly.”
“How many men, do you think?” asked her aunt.
Mercy knelt down on her seat beside Miss Clay so she could see. Though the question had not been directed at her, she answered. “I can’t imagine those things hold more than three at a time.”
To which Miss Clay said, “I suspect you’re right. Those . . . those . . . carts, or mechanized wagons, or whatever they are . . . they look like they’re made for speed, not for military transport.”
The nurse added, “And they’re made for assault. Look at their guns.” She pointed, jamming her knuckle against the breath-slick glass.
Theodora Clay tried to follow the indication and agreed. “Yes, I see two Gatling-form spritzers mounted above each front axle, and small-caliber repeating cannon on the rear axle.”
Mercy looked at her with a puzzled frown. “You know something about artillery, do you?”
She said, “A bit,” which was such a useless contribution to the conversation that it may as well not have been offered at all.
“All right. Do you think we’re in range?”
“Depends on what you mean by that. They could likely hit the side of a barn at this distance, but they couldn’t hit it twice in a row, not at the speeds they’re coming.” Miss Clay looked back down at her aunt and said, “But we should do what Mercy’s been telling everyone. Get your luggage, Aunt Norene.”
“I’ll do no such thing!”
Miss Clay gave the old woman a scowl. She said, in a level, angry voice, “Then go help other people get their luggage out and sorted, if you’re too much a soldier to cover your own hide.”
Mrs. Butterfield sniffed disdainfully and flounced out of her compartment into the aisle. Once there, she immediately spotted the widower trying to wrangle his two boys, and set to assisting him.
Miss Clay returned her attention to the window and said, almost to herself, “They’re gaining. Not by much, but they’re gaining.”
Mercy was still looking after Mrs. Butterfield and could therefore see out the other side of the train. She said, “And they’ve got friends, coming at us from the north.”
“Goddammit,” said Miss Clay. Mercy wasn’t sure why the blasphemy surprised her. “How many do you think that makes?”
“I haven’t the foggiest. I can’t see very far the other way,” she said, though she dashed across the aisle and leaned her face against the window. There, she could spot at least three, and a dust trail that might indicate a fourth somewhere just beyond her range of vision. “Maybe the same number?”
She returned to Miss Clay’s side and gazed hard at the vehicles.
Theodora said, “They’ve got a little armor plating, but nothing that could withstand anything like the antiaircraft cannons on our engine.”
“They look fast, though. Maybe they think that if they can catch up fast enough, we won’t have much time to fire at them.”
“Then they’re idiots. Jesus, they’re coming right for us!”
But Mercy said, “No, not right for us.” The formation of machines was forking, spreading out and lining up. “Look what they’re doing. They’re going for the engine and the caboose.”
“Well, they know we’ve got passengers aboard,” Mercy pointed out. “And they don’t give a shit about the passengers. They want something else. Something at the front, or the rear.” She felt like she was stating the obvious, and the longer she watched, the more obvious it became-the machines were deliberately parting to ignore the middle cars.
“You say that like they’re reasonable human beings,” Miss Clay spit.
“They’re every bit as reasonable as the boys aboard this train,” she said stubbornly. “Thinking less of them than that’ll get you killed.”
Theodora looked like she would’ve loved to argue, but she heard her aunt bullying and bossing out in the aisle and changed her mind, or her tactic, at least. She said, “Leaving room for error, if all the passengers holed up in the middle cars, they might be safest.”
“You might be right.”
The forward door burst open and Cyrus Berry came squeezing through it, followed by Inspector Galeano and Pierce Tankersly, then Claghorn Myer and Fenwick Durboraw, two other enlisted men whom Mercy had seen coming and going along the train.
Mercy said, “But not yet-we’ve got to let the soldiers sort themselves out.” She cried, “Mr. Tankersly!” and summoned him over.
In a few fast words, she explained her guess and Miss Clay’s idea. He nodded. “That’s a good plan. I’m going to put you in charge of it.”
“We’ve been split into squadrons fore and aft, and we’re migrating that way now. Do you have a watch?”
“Not on me,” she confessed.
“Does anybody have a watch?” he asked the room. When he was greeted only with mumbles and the frantic mechanizations of people building fortresses out of luggage, Mercy stopped him.
She asked, “How long do you need to get into place?”
“Five minutes,” he said. “Give us five minutes. Can you guess that pretty good?”
“Yes,” she said, then turned him around and gave him a shove. “Now get moving!”
The whole clot of officials went struggling through the narrow aisle to the back door. Once they were through it, Mercy and Theodora considered the plan.
“There are seven passenger cars,” Mercy counted out. “If everyone from the first and seventh can squeeze into the middle five, that’ll leave the first and last as buffers and won’t crush everyone too badly in the rest.”
Miss Clay said, “Yes. And we’ll probably even be able to keep the aisles clear, once everyone’s settled. Do you want to go up to the first car, or back to the last one?”
“Um . . . I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”
Theodora Clay made a sound of sublime exasperation and held out a coin as if to flip it. She said, “Last car’s closest to where we are, so that’ll be easiest. On the count of three, heads or tails . . .”
“Tails,” Mercy said, and when heads flashed up, she added, “That’s fine. I’ll work my way up front. You work your way to the rear, and we’ll meet back in the middle.”
Miss Clay nodded as crisply as any soldier ever clicked to attention.
Mercy grabbed her satchel and threw off her cloak to make her movements easier-never mind the cold between the cars; she could stand it. She checked her guns, and the two women walked into the aisle, narrowly dodging a second wave of uniformed men brandishing weapons. Then they turned different directions, and ran.
Mercy backtracked the way she’d just come, urging people in the central cars into makeshift shelters and reassuring the hysterical that a plan was in place, though she went out of her way to keep from explaining that it was a feeble plan, consisting mostly of the order to “Move!” But a plan kept things from going straight to hell, and the soldiers appeared to appreciate it, going so far as to assist where possible as they polarized themselves forward and aft, setting up defensive positions and barricades in the places where the Confederate raiders seemed most likely to attack.
She met Captain MacGruder back in the first passenger car. When she’d finished herding its occupants into the second car, the captain reached for Mercy’s arm and lured her back into the first one, where his soldiers were holing up and readying themselves. He stood there, struggling to ask her something, and not knowing how to phrase it.
“Can I help you, Captain?” she tried to prompt him.
He said, “It’s only . . . I hope we’re doing the right thing, leaving the passenger cars unguarded.”
She said, “So do I.”
“It’s placing a great deal of faith in our enemy . . . ,” he observed.
Mercy agreed, “Perhaps.” Then she looked about. Seeing no truly unoccupied corners, she led him over to an abandoned compartment and pretended they’d achieved a fragile modicum of privacy. “Sir, let me ask you something.”
“By all means.”
“What do they want?”
He said, “I beg your pardon?”
“I may not be an officer, but I’m not an idiot, either. And this train, this trip . . . it’s a big fat pile of horse pucky, and it smells like it, too.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, with just enough hesitation to make Mercy quite certain he was lying.
Exasperated, she said, “Look at those machines out there. They’ll be on us at any minute. I’ve never seen anything like them, have you?”
“No, I haven’t. But why would you-?”
“They’re expensive, I bet. Probably made in Texas like all the best war toys, and then shipped up here on one of the Republican rail lines that meets up at the Utah pass. That’s not a cheap thing to do.”
“Madam, I assure you this is purely a civilian mission-”
“Oh, and I’m your mother!” she almost yelled at him. Again she pointed out the window, to a place where the vehicles were shambling at breakneck speed over the low grassy nubs on the prairie. “Look at them. They know. They know the passengers are a bluff. They’re aiming for the engine and the caboose, or the after-caboose. And I want you to tell me, Captain MacGruder . . . why?”
The captain stiffened, and said slowly, “As a civilian, none of this is your concern.”
“As a woman stuck on this goddamn train with you and your boys, and someone else’s boys getting ready to open fire on us, it sure as hell is my concern.”
But then a whirring noise up front declared that the Dreadnought’s defense systems were winding up, threading strands and coils of bullets up to the Gatling-copies mounted on the engine’s sides. Mercy said, “Captain!” She wasn’t sure what she’d follow it with, a plea for information or a demand for instructions, but nothing had time to come.
With a jolt that kicked the first couple of passenger cars and made them sway, the Dreadnought opened fire, spraying a line of bullets across the sand-colored earth and blasting pits in wavy rows. The mechanized three-wheelers were barely within range, and they dodged, ducking and bucking left to right and back again-unexpectedly stable for such spindly looking creations. In a moment, all of them righted themselves and struck a forward course once more.
“Get back to your car and stay down,” the captain commanded, at the exact moment the Rebel craft fired back.
A hail of bullets smashed through the windows that hadn’t been opened, sending sprays of glass exploding through the narrow compartment. Everyone ducked and shook their heads, casting shards out of their hair and off their shoulders. Mercy crouched in the compartment, the captain crouching with her.
He said again, “Go, for God’s sake!”
More fire from the Dreadnought made the cars rock and shake, giving the towed compartments a centrifugal snap every time the larger guns were fired. Mercy retreated as ordered-stopping at the doors and holding her breath, waiting, trying to calculate the incalculable. There was no way to time her steps to a steady roll of the train, because she had no way of knowing when it would fire; so she breathed deeply, yanked at the door, flung herself into the next car, and hoped for the best.
By the time she’d made it back to the third car, one car shy of her goal, a man caught up to her from the first compartment, where half the soldiers were busy fending off the Rebs.
The soldier called out, “Mrs. Lynch!”
When she turned around, he did not wait for confirmation, just wheezed, “Can you come back to the front car? We’ve got some men hurt.”
“Already? But I just left!” she exclaimed, then waved her hands as if to dismiss her own reaction. “Never mind, I’m coming. I’m right behind you.”
The sun was more set than not, and its grim yellow glow was the only thing lighting the train. The porters had snuffed the gas lamps and then, no doubt, holed up someplace sensible. Moving up and down the aisles was like crashing through someone else’s nightmare, and it was an increasingly dark nightmare, with exponentially more terrors, as the light faded and the confusion mounted.
Just when Mercy thought she couldn’t possibly find her way through one more car, she reached her goal, seizing the last frigid handle and clutching it, in order to move herself across the wind-torn space.
“I’m here,” she announced with a gasp. “Who needs me?”
The sweep of a nearby three-wheeler was her only answer, not coming close enough to ride alongside the car, but spraying it with enough ammunition to wipe out anyone standing too tall. The whole car stank of gunpowder and ashes, and the sweat of frightened men.
Cyrus Berry turned from his position at his window beside Morris Comstock. He said, “Not here, ma’am. Next car up.”
“There ain’t no next car up,” she griped tiredly.
“Not no passenger car, no. But there is a next car. Go on. The captain’s been sniped and I think Fenwick is maybe a goner. Please, will you? Next car up. They’ll let you in, I swear it.”
The mysterious third car-the one behind the fuel cart and the engine proper-was the very focus of half of this more earnest, better planned raid. She tried to ignore the fact that she might find her answers inside whether or not the captain felt like dishing them out; and she tried to steel herself as she fumbled for the forward door’s slick, chilly latch.
“Ma’am!” shouted Morris Comstock without looking away from his window. “Be careful, and move fast!” He pumped the bolt on the rifle and aimed with one eye shut, and one eye narrowed.
She could scarcely see him, for the twilight and the smoke of the guns had made the air all gummy, even as it rushed and swirled through the open windows. “I will,” she promised, but she didn’t think he could hear her. She seized the slippery latch and gave it a tug, then gave the door a shove with her shoulder.
Almost-night lashed around her. In the few slim feet between passenger car and mystery car, the air was sharp with bullets and loud with the clank of artillery and the grudging, straining pump of the Dreadnought’s pistons jamming the wheels over and over and over, drawing the train along the tracks and farther into the sunset-chasing it, doomed never to catch it. Begging for just a few more minutes of light.
Off to her left, so immediate and close that it nearly stopped her heart, Mercy saw one of the three-wheeled monsters leap more intimately into range. She could see, on the other side of the scratched, thick windshield, that there were two men inside, though she could make out nothing but the ovals of their faces and the dark pits of their eyes.
She wondered how they could see at all, then realized that the machines had a murky glow from within. She didn’t know if they had lanterns, or some form of electrical light, or something as simple and magical as a jar of fireflies inside the craft. But there was enough for them to see and work the controls; that much was clear.
Mercy stood, paralyzed by the wind and the nearness of the danger, in the spot between the passenger car and the mystery car, and wept from the awful sting of the rushing air and the engine fumes. She gripped the rail above the passenger car’s front coupler until her fingers were numb and her knuckles were as white as if they’d succumbed to frost.
The three-wheeler bobbed into view again, and the men within it came close enough that she could see their black eyeholes seeing her-an easy target between the cars-and conferring. It suddenly occurred to her, They could shoot me. They might shoot me. My own fellows might kill me, and never even know. . . .
But the Dreadnought was on watch, and whether or not the three-wheeler had intended to take the easy shot, it did not, for a searing stripe of bullets went scorching along the earth, the live ammunition throwing up sparks and small explosions of light at the edge of the Rebels’ line of attack. Off to Mercy’s right, out of her line of sight on the other side of the train, something flew into bits with a crash and a ball of fire that temporarily warmed her, even as it horrified her. One of the three-wheelers was down, most definitely.
Off to the left, the three-wheeler that had been very near had gone someplace she couldn’t see. She wanted to believe they’d seen she was a woman and had opted to leave her be; but she suspected it was more a fear of the engine, and its guns, and the men in the next car up, who defended the train with the ferocity of lions.
Reaching the mystery car required a literal leap of faith, or at least a few steps of contrition.
Knowing that she’d never get a peaceful moment to make the rushing jump to the other car, Mercy counted to three and threw herself at the other platform, which had not been designed for passengers, and was therefore without the rails, gates, and other safety measures that made crossing these tiny, terrible bridges more manageable on the rest of the train. She wavered as she landed, but caught herself by tangling her hands into the rungs of a ladder that had been welded into place against the car’s body. Thusly braced, she used her other hand to grab the latch and jiggle it open.
The door flapped outward into her face, but she dodged it, and swung herself around it, and drew it shut behind her. This motion took fewer than three seconds, and it landed her in the midst of a shuttered car so dark that she could see her own feet only with the aid of a lantern held close to the floor, back in the corner.
She said, “Captain?” since she didn’t see him at first. Then she spotted him against the wall, seated, with a rag of some sort held up against his head.
Fenwick Durboraw was lying beside him.
She crouched down low and forced herself to ignore the whistle of ammunition shrieking only feet, or sometimes only inches, above her head. Flinging herself down into the corner, she took the lantern and turned to Durboraw first, since he wasn’t moving.
With a flutter and a racket accompanied by renewed firepower from outside, the rear door opened and a young porter came in carrying two more torches and a box of matches. He said, “I’m real sorry, sirs. Real sorry it took so long.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Captain MacGruder, his words only slightly muffled by the rag that hung down over his face. He gestured for the man and for the lights, and the colored man brought them forward, setting one beside Mercy and handing the other to the captain.
Then the captain said, “I think we’re too late for Fenwick. If he isn’t dead yet, he won’t last long.”
Mercy held the first lamp over him and saw no sign of breathing or motion. She opened one of his eyelids and brought the light close, but the pupils didn’t contract, and when she turned his head to better feel his pulse, blood came dribbling out of his nose. “What happened to him?” she asked.
“Percussion bombs. Small models, anyway. They’re launching them from those meat-baskets,” he said. “That’s why we threw up the screens, to bounce them back.”
She looked up and saw them, silhouetted against the sky from her position down on the floor. They were scarcely any darker, and they looked like old coal screens, which is what they probably were. “But one got through?”
“One got through. He threw himself down on it; look.” The captain pointed at the soldier’s chest, where the wool overcoat was discolored and strangely frayed, as if he’d caught a cannonball to the belly. “Those things, they tear you up on the inside.”
Before she could stop herself, she murmured, “And they’re called ‘clappers,’ ain’t that right?”
He took a moment to answer her. Finally he said, “That’s what the Rebs call them, yes.”
Fenwick Durboraw let out a soft, slow breath, and his chest sank beneath Mercy’s hand. It didn’t rise again. She said, “He’s gone, sure enough. Now let me get a look at you.”
The captain objected, but she pointed at the porter and said, “You there, hold up the light so I can see.” Her authority in this world was limited and uncertain, but she knew when to wield it. She forced the captain’s rag-filled hand away from his face. At first she saw nothing but blood, sluicing down the side of his head from a deep, long scratch with very sharp edges. She said, “Shrapnel upside the head, Captain. Hold still and let me clean it out.”
He did as she told him, wincing against the touch of the rags, which were so damp with his own blood that they scarcely did any good.
She noticed this herself, said, “Hold on. I’ve got something in my bag,” then pulled out a tincture solution and dabbed it on a cloth before giving up and pouring it a drizzle at a time over the wound. “Holy hell, Captain. I’ve got a shining look at your skull, I don’t mind saying. You need a good stitching, and sooner rather than later. Where’s the doctor?” she asked suddenly, only just aware of his absence.
“Back car; at the caboose, or behind it,” he said. “Purdue commandeered him before I had a chance to, goddamn his soul indefinitely.”
“Doesn’t matter, I guess.” She opened her satchel again. “If he was here, he’d just tell me to do it, anyway,” she said casually as she reached for the needles and thread she kept stashed inside. She extracted a curved needle and a spool of thread that was sturdy enough to stitch a couch.
Despite the percussion bombs bouncing off the windows and the occasional ping of a bullet slamming against the car’s armored hull, Captain MacGruder’s eyes widened at the needle and ignored everything else. “You’re going to use that . . .”
“On your head, yes. I’m going to sew your scalp together, and it isn’t going to feel good at all, but you’ll thank me for it later. Now lie down like a man and put your head on my lap.”
“I beg your-”
“I’m not asking for your permission. Do what I tell you, and I’ll try to keep your head from splitting open. You don’t want your face sliding off your bones, do you?”
He paused. “It could do that?”
“Like warm butter off a pan bottom,” she fibbed.
He descended from a sitting position to a lying one, and wiggled weakly until his head was lying atop her thigh, as directed.
“You there.” She indicated the porter again. “What’s your name?”
He said, “Jasper. Jasper Nichols.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jasper Nichols. I’m going to need you to keep holding that, as steady as you can. Bring it near. Closer. I’m not going to bite you, and neither is he.” And to the captain, she said, “Close your eyes, if that makes it easier. I ain’t going to lie, this is going to hurt. But I think you can take it.”
“I’m not going to close my eyes.”
“Well, that’s up to you,” she said. And while the porter Jasper Nichols held the lantern above as steady as humanly possible, given the motion of the train and the kickback from the Dreadnought’s weapons, she talked to them both. “Jasper, I figured all you porters were walled up tight in one of the service sections. I’m a little surprised to see you up front. Whatever they’re paying you, I expect it doesn’t cover military duty.”
He kept his eyes on the captain’s skin, which was steadily being drawn together and forming a squishing, bloody seam. “Maybe not, ma’am. But I’m from Alabama,” he said, as if it explained everything.
It explained enough for Mercy to ask, “Why didn’t you enlist?”
Without showing her, he said, “I’m missing a foot. Got it cut off when I was small, for disobeying.”
She shook her head slowly, trying to concentrate despite the incessant mechanical movement. “That ain’t right.”
“Lots ain’t right,” he said. “Staying back in the ’boose wouldn’t be right either, not when these men got to have some light.”
“Good call,” she told him, temporarily holding the bloody needle in her mouth as she estimated the best way to stitch a particularly uneven stretch of wound. “And I, for one, am glad you made it. What about the men at the other end of the train?”
“My cousin Cole Byron is taking care of them. We didn’t put no lights back on in the passenger cars, though.”
She said, “That’s fine. Leave ’em dark. The folks inside’ll be scared, but I bet they’ll be safer that way, with nothing to draw attention to them.”
The captain mumbled, “They have nothing to gain by going after the passenger cars.”
And Mercy replied, “Yes, I believe you and I very recently had a conversation on that subject.”
Continuing like he hadn’t heard her, he said, “I don’t know what they want from the caboose. What would they want with dead bodies?”
“But you do know what they want with these front cars, don’t you?”
He opened his eyes, which he’d closed after all, once she’d gotten started. He said quietly, “Look around you, woman. Don’t you see why their artillery isn’t getting through? Except for a little shrapnel and that one percussion bomb . . .” His voice trailed off, then recuperated. “It’s not the armor outside that keeps us safe in here.”
She paused her stitching long enough to raise her head, and was startled by her own obliviousness. She hadn’t noticed, in the wild dance of flinging herself into the darkened car; and she hadn’t seen, even now that there were three lanterns casting shadows from corner to corner . . . but how could she have missed it?
From floor to window, and stacked all along the central aisle, the mystery car that trailed behind the Dreadnought was packed with bars of gold.