home   |   À-ß   |   A-Z   |   ìåíþ


Fifteen

Dreadnought

Under her breath, so softly that only the captain and the porter could hear her, Mercy said, “Well, now. I did not see that coming. The Union’s moving all her money out West? What kind of a crock is that?”

She tied off the last bit of Captain MacGruder’s scalp with a knot. Rather than root around for her scissors, she leaned down and bit off the excess thread. And when her mouth was only inches from his ear she said, “So that’s what the Rebs want with the train.”

He struggled to sit up, wobbled, and found his way upright. “Looks that way. Though how they found out about it, I can’t reckon.”

“And what about the rear car? What do they want with the noble dead?” she asked. She was almost sarcastic, but the din of bullets beating against the car walls stripped all the subtext out of everyone’s words.

“I honestly haven’t the foggiest.”

“Is there more gold back there?” she asked, wiping off her hands and repacking her satchel.

“Not as far as I know,” he swore. And he continued, “But they might not know that; and the truth is, I wonder. Malverne Purdue isn’t under my command,” he said sourly. “The rear compartment is his domain, as decreed by the United States Army. I’ve been told to mind my own compartment and leave that crooked scientist to his.”

Mercy rose up to a kneeling position, her knees popping from having sat too long in a strange tangle with the captain’s head atop her lap. This put their eyes at nearly on the same level, for he again leaned on the wall, seated in a loose Indian style. “You don’t even know, do you-if there are really bodies back there?”

He said, unsteadily, “I believe there are bodies.”

“Then there could be more gold.”

The captain shook his head. “I saw the men loading the caskets, and they didn’t seem unnaturally heavy. But they were . . . they were sealed. Anyway-” He reached for his hat, which was streaked with a bloody tear. He put it back on with a grimace, and when he spoke again, he sounded stronger. “Purdue’s the only man on board this train who knows what’s really back there. And unless the Rebs manage to board us against our will, that’ll remain the case until we reach Boise.”

“Why Boise? I thought those bodies were going all the way to Tacoma.”

“So did I, but no one ever tells me anything until the last minute. It turns out they’re going to be processed at the army post in Idaho, whatever that means.”

Mercy was quiet for a moment. They faced each other that way while the men inside the car fired their rifles loudly and repeatedly. The violent noises were enough to make their ears ring.

She said, “That don’t make any sense, not if they’re just dead boys being sent home. Maybe the Rebs know something we don’t.”

“Ma’am,” he said, “If the Rebs know something about this train that I don’t, I’m going to take that right personal.”

She climbed to her feet. The porter Jasper Nichols was already standing, his posture off-kilter due to his false foot. He was peering up through the slits of light where the windows were letting in moonlight, starlight, and flashes of artillery fire. She asked him, “How are we doing?”

He started to reply, but a particularly loud report from the Dreadnought’s defense system shook the whole train like the roll of a cracked whip snapping from handle to tip. When it had subsided, he said, “I think we’re fending ’em off.”

But another round of jagged gunshots landed in a bounding roll along the side of the car, as if to contradict him.

Morris Comstock was nearest to Mercy, reloading his repeater with shaking hands. This time she asked him, since he’d been looking outside to aim and fire and might have a better idea about what was going on. “Mr. Comstock, are they retreating? Are they still leaving the passenger cars alone?”

He said, “I don’t know,” as he slipped another rimfire cartridge into place. “It looks like they’re concentrating on us, but I can’t see any farther than about two cars back.” Then he double-checked his gun, climbed on top of one of the gold-filled crates, and reassumed his position. He said to his commanding officer, “Captain, it might be worth sending someone to check.”

“Have we had any word from the back of the train?” Captain MacGruder asked.

“No sir. Not yet. Not unless the porter-”

Jasper Nichols said, “My cousin ain’t sent word, so maybe they’re doing all right back there.”

“Or maybe they’re so hard up for help, they can’t ask for it. Cyrus?” he called to the private first class.

“Yes sir?”

“You in one piece?”

“Yes sir.”

The captain said, “Make a dash back to the rear, and let me know what’s going on there. Porter, do you mind going with him?”

“No sir, I don’t.”

“He might need a light, or something, and I reckon you know the train better than we do. Mrs. Lynch, you go with them, too.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you,” he ordered, not quite crossly but impatiently. “Since we’ve got ourselves all reinforced with the-with the contents of this car, we’ve got better plating than the folks in the rear. It’d take antiaircraft projectiles to put a dent in this car, or cannon of a heavier weight than those meat-baskets will carry. Go make sure the doctor doesn’t need any help, and check up on the passengers, while you’re at it.”

She asked, “Why is it my job to watch the passengers?”

“Because they trust you more than they trust us. They’re willing to do what you tell them, anyway, and if they hear it from a soldier, maybe it frightens them more than if they hear it from a nice young woman. Just make sure they’re staying low and not doing anything stupid.”

“Don’t have much faith in civilians, do you now?”

“I don’t have much faith in people. But right now, I trust you, and Cyrus, and that-there porter to make your way to the rear of this train and bring me back word about what’s going on.”

He used the interior wall as a brace to shove himself up to a standing position, where he swooned, but held himself upright even against the jostling shove of the train’s rocking. As Mercy, Cyrus, and Jasper gathered at the door, ready to take on the next cars, the captain held up his hand and said, “Private First Class!”

“Yes sir?”

“If Purdue is holed up in that back car, you force your way in there, you hear me? Don’t you let him pull rank, because he doesn’t have one. Tell him I sent you as reinforcements, will you? The time might be coming where I damn well need to know what he’s got back there.”

“Yes sir, I’ll do that,” Cyrus replied with a strange gleam in his eye, like he’d just been ordered to do the thing he wanted most in the whole wide world.

“Good. Carry on,” he said, giving them a half wave that could’ve been a dismissive gesture, but was more likely an attempt to balance while maintaining a standing position.

Jasper Nichols took the lead and one of the lanterns, but he shuttered it before opening the door. Cyrus Berry asked him, “What are you doing-trying to get us killed? We need to see, crossing that gap!”

The porter replied, “Just the opposite of that, sir. It’s dark as hell out there, and they’ll shoot if they see a light. You don’t want them to see you, do you?” he asked.

Cyrus looked like he wanted to argue, which Mercy thought was weird. But Jasper Nichols continued, saying, “It’s only a couple of steps, and I’ll take ’em first, and help you two come over. It won’t take a second, if we do it careful.”

“He’s right,” Mercy hissed. “If we’re lucky, they won’t even see us opening and shutting the doors. Now, come on.”

Cyrus took third place in line and the porter opened the door, only to be greeted with a frigid flapping noise and a gust of wind that blew papers around in the compartment like a storm. The captain said, “Goddammit! Who opened that box?” And someone else answered, “Didn’t mean to, Captain! Just trying to stand on it!”

Mercy waved her hands to brush the papers away from her face and caught one in the process. She tried to throw it away, but the inrushing air forced it against her fingers, so she wadded it up and stuffed it into her apron pocket. “Let’s go, fellows,” she said, and then she realized that Jasper Nichols was already across the gap, and opening the other door.

Both doors opened out, so that when they were both open, they offered a small measure of protective cover against anyone scanning the area for something to shoot. But when Mercy put her hands on the door to hold it as she passed, she felt how thin it was, and she imagined that a determined enough bullet would breeze through it as easy as a curtain.

But it was dark-devilishly dark. She wished she hadn’t left her cloak in her own compartment, even though it would’ve weighed her down. Night gave the February wind a keener edge, without the sun to dull its damage. And this wind between the cars was a terror, a banshee, a weapon of its own. The nurse stuck out her feet, reached out her hand for the next rail over, and was grasped instead by the porter, who braced her as she swung the rest of the way across. He helped her to a firmer spot, all but pushed her through the open door, and reached out his hand again to take the private first class in the same manner.

The doors slapped shut, sealing all three of them into the bleak, tubular interior of the next car. They stood somewhat dazed, rattled, and ruffled in the empty car, but then the porter rallied them.

“Stay low!” he said.

“They haven’t shot at any of the passengers yet, have they?” Mercy asked.

Jasper Nichols said, “Not as far as I know, but that don’t mean they won’t start. And anyway, if they’re paying any attention, they know we’ve evacuated this car, and the last one. If they see us moving around in here, they may figure we’re up to no good.”

Moving forward in single file, in a crouch that was graceful for no one, the three unlikely travelers swiftly found the end of that first passenger car and repeated their half-blind charge across the gap until they were all safely inside the second passenger car.

There, dozens of people-far more than there ought to be-were barricaded, stuffed behind their luggage and between the sleeper compartments, crammed against the floor and alongside the storage bays. All of them were silent as death, and all of them watched with eyes that were too horror-struck to blink. These shiny eyes flickered in the muted rays of the shuttered lantern, watching like foxes from burrows, while the hounds barked in circles outside.

As a matter of professional duty, Mercy asked, in a hard whisper that only just carried above the sounds of the small war beyond the car, “Is everybody all right in here? Does anyone need any help with anything?”

No one answered, so she said, “Good. Y’all stay put and stay low. You’re doing it just right. Nobody make a peep, you hear?”

They must have heard, because no one did make a peep, even in polite response.

The three travelers received the same response through the next few cars, until it felt to Mercy like some strange circle of hell-where the floor never stopped moving, the soldiers never stopped shooting, and she was never safe standing up straight. Her back hurt from all the hunkering, and her forearms and elbows took many a hard knock from her passage in the dark, but eventually they reached the last car that ought to be filled with passengers, the sixth sleeper car, and encountered Jasper Nichols’s cousin and fellow porter, Cole Byron. The two men nearly knocked heads as they stayed low in the aisle, and the conversation that followed told Mercy little of practical value except that the rearmost passenger car had not been wholly evacuated, which Mercy blamed squarely on Theodora Clay-of whom she’d seen no sign.

Cyrus Berry said, “One more car, then,” and convinced Jasper Nichols to lend him the lantern long enough to look. “You stay here,” he said to the nurse and to the porter, neither of whom took kindly to the command. But a little girl underneath a fortress of suitcases began to cry about her nose, and the child’s mother asked if Mercy would please come take a look.

She sighed and agreed, even though she was suddenly very curious about what precisely was going on in the next car over, since the warfare sounded much louder from where she crouched in the aisle than it had over in the first mystery car. She hesitated before answering the girl’s mother, but Cyrus said, “Ma’am, if I need you, I’ll call for you,” and dashed out the door.

As soon as the soldier was gone, Cole Byron told his cousin, “Something strange is up in that car, man. That crazy Union fellow, the one who ain’t the soldier, you know the one I mean?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“He’s called up a bunch of men from the train, including that big ol’ Texian, and he’s ordering them around, like he’s a man who can tell ’em what to do.”

This answered Mercy’s other question when it came to the passengers: she hadn’t seen Horatio Korman yet, either, and she wondered what he was doing. She was about to ask Cole Byron for details when the man added, “Except for that Texian-he ain’t going to shoot no Rebs, but I think he might shoot hisself a Union man or two if he gets half a chance. That’s why they done took away his guns.”

It made sense, of course, but Mercy didn’t like it. She felt umbrage in the ranger’s behalf and imagined him holed up in that last passenger car, stripped of his weaponry and seething. Surely he was seething. She couldn’t imagine him in any other state.

She did talk to the little girl in the suitcases, and though she had virtually no light to see by, she ascertained by the wet, dark stains down the girl’s shirt that she’d bloodied her nose at some point in the melee.

Her mother said, “One of the cases fell down and hit her in the face. Is she all right?”

Examining by feel, Mercy fiddled with the crying child’s features until she could declare, “I don’t think it’s broken, but I can’t see to save my life.”

“Oh, God,” said the mother, aghast.

“No, no, it’s not the end of the world even if it’s busted,” Mercy assured her. “She’s a little thing still, and a doctor can set it right again. Or I could set it right, if I could see worth a damn,” she muttered. “But she’ll survive, don’t worry. She’s made a mess, that’s all. You got a rag or something?”

“A handkerchief?”

“That’ll work.” Mercy took it, and clamped it gently on the child’s nose. “You’re still bleeding some, aren’t you, sweetheart?” she asked the child.

The girl tried to nod, even as the cloth was pressed up against her face. The nurse felt this gesture and said, “That’s all right, it’ll stop soon enough. Like I told your momma, it’s not the end of the world, and you’ll be fine. Just hold this like this,” she demonstrated, and tipped the child’s chin up. “And hold your face up, and back. It’ll quit. Don’t worry.”

An ominous, exceedingly close round of gunshots blasted from very nearby within the train. A few people let out soft screams, or attempted to muffle them, and everyone ducked down lower. The child tried to lean against Mercy’s arm for a hug, but the nurse pushed her gently back to her mother’s arms and scooted out to the edge of the aisle. The two porters had gone back to the front of the car and were conversing in low tones. Even they had been startled into silence at the terrible proximity of the bullets.

“What’s going on in there?” she asked of no one in particular.

She was about to grab the door handle and see for herself when it burst open and Horatio Korman came barreling through, followed by the white-faced doctor Stinchcomb, who appeared to be injured or ill. He slammed the door behind himself. It looked like he would’ve locked it if he could, but he couldn’t see any better than anyone else.

“Crazy goddamn bluebacks!” the ranger swore.

The doctor said, “You must understand, I had no idea-”

“No one gives half a two-ounce sparrow shit if you had any idea. This is madness. This is . . . this is . . .” He picked another word. “This is practically mutiny, and you know it same as I do!”

“Mr. Korman! Dr. Stinchcomb!” Mercy hissed from the floor. “Get down, for God’s sake!”

Both men dropped like stones, though Korman kept one eye on the rear door as if he expected it to open at any moment. “Mrs. Lynch, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Where’s Cyrus Berry? Did he make it back yet?”

“Who, the dumb little private?”

“He’s perfectly pleasant, you oaf. Is he still back there?”

The ranger said, “Yes, he’s back there, and that’s where he’ll stay. That lunatic Malverne Purdue shot him dead, not two minutes ago. Surely you must’ve heard it!”

Someone to the right gasped, and Jasper Nichols came sidling up the aisle with his cousin in tow. He asked, “That redheaded man shot the private?”

“That’s right. He accused the kid of some unpleasant activities, and when the boy tried to defend himself that rat-faced, redheaded scientist picked up one of my pistols and shot him dead.”

“Berry was following orders,” Mercy said, but she said it feebly because she wasn’t really sure.

Korman said, “He might’ve been, but Christ knows whose orders he was answering to. Between you and me, Mrs. Lynch, I’m fairly sure that the boy was a spy.”

“Oh, you cannot be serious!” she said, not even bothering to whisper.

“Oh, but I surely can. I caught him staring down at those couplers one time too many. I think he’s the one who’s been trying to snap ’em. If I’d figured it out sooner, I would’ve shoved him off the train when I had the chance.”

Jasper Nichols made a snort that said he thought it wasn’t likely to happen, a Texian picking a fight with a southern spy. Korman only grumbled in response. “It’s like I’ve said all along: I just want to get to Utah. Anyone standing between me and that goal . . . I’m happy to pitch or punch.”

Mercy suddenly remembered that the telegram she’d read started with the letters CB. Cyrus Berry’s initials, but it simply hadn’t dawned on her at the time. They could’ve been lots of people’s initials, after all. Could’ve been Cole Byron’s. Could’ve been nobody’s.

“So here’s what we’re going to do now,” the ranger went on, waving the porters closer until their capped heads leaned up to the conversation. They huddled there in the middle of the aisle where no one had any room at all, so everybody’s shoulders touched, and everyone could smell everyone else’s breath. “You two fellows, can you bolt these doors from the inside? I know they all open out, but there’s got to be a good way to fix ’em shut.”

They nodded. Cole said, “There’s a brace bar to the right. I can fix it.”

As if he understood where this was going, Jasper said, “You can fix ’em from the outside, too, if you’re serious about keeping those men from coming into this car.”

“Excellent. Thinking ahead-I like to see that in a man. You two think you can do that, seal off this car from the last passenger car, the caboose, and the final car?”

“Yes sir. It’ll just take us a minute.”

“Then do it, and do it now. I’m going to make my way up front. I need to have a talk with the captain,” he said, his mouth set in a grim, angry line.

The two porters shifted, begged pardons, and climbed past Mercy and the ranger, who all but crawled their way to the forward doors. Mercy was behind him, and she grabbed his foot in order to seize his attention. “Korman, that captain isn’t going to let you anywhere near that car up front.”

“Is that where they’re holed up? Not in the first sleeper?”

“Yes,” she said quickly, still holding on to the instep of his boot. “There’s no one in the first passenger car at all, I don’t think. But they’ll never let you inside their little fort. Hell, I only got inside because the captain got himself hurt.”

He reached up for the door latch, gripped it, and looked back down at her. “They let you see it? What’s inside?”

“What do you care? You’ve said so yourself, and more than once, how you don’t care what goes on right now between the blues and the grays.”

“I said it, and I meant it, and I pretty much mean it still,” he said. “But this does change things.”

“How?”

He turned the latch, and the door cracked open to allow a stream of blistering cold to billow through. It ruffled his mustache and rattled his hat, and he raised his voice so he could be heard over it. “Because until you said that, I was going to tell you to stay here. But now I think you’d better come with me. I need someone they’re less likely to shoot.”

“Goddammit, Mr. Korman.”

“You said it, ma’am,” he said, and shoved the door open far enough to rise to a stooped standing position. He dived for the next door and opened it, and Mercy was right behind him, swearing all the way.

Once more, back along the winnowing length of the passenger cars, Mercy’s aching back and bent-up legs carried her slowly through the tubes filled with luggage and frightened people. Finally they reached the first passenger car, which was still abandoned, though a few bullet holes in the windows gave the atmosphere a whistling howl that sounded like the singing of the dead.

Horatio Korman pulled himself into a sleeper compartment and drew Mercy along behind him. He said, “I don’t want any surprises in there. You tell me what they’ve got going on, up in that next car. What are they protecting?”

“Do you really think Cyrus Berry was a spy?” she asked, as if she hadn’t heard him.

“Yes, but I don’t think it’s what got him killed. I think Purdue believed the boy knew what was back there, and he didn’t want anyone else to get wind of it. Now, tell me, what’s going on up front?”

She pointed a finger at his nose and said, “I’m trusting you on this.”

“You’re a damn fool. For all you know, I could’ve shot Berry myself.”

“But if you had,” she said, speaking above the wind and leaning forward, “the doctor or the porter would’ve said something, and they didn’t.” She looked him in the eyes one more time and then said, “It’s gold! Gold! They’re moving gold, tons of it.”

“Whatever the hell for?” he asked. “Surely they aren’t shoring up against a Rebel victory?”

“I don’t know why!” she insisted. As she leaned back in the seat, she heard a crumple of paper coming from her apron. She fiddled it out of the place where it’d been riding for half an hour now.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know, I found it in that car,” she said. “I can’t hardly read it, though. Do you have a light?”

He said, “Hang on,” and opened up his coat to reveal a vest with many pockets and a holster with a large, shiny six-shooter in it.

She said, “I thought the porter said they’d took your guns.”

“Malverne Purdue is an idiot,” he said flatly. “He took the two I had out in front, but he didn’t search me. He may be some kind of brilliant scientist, but he doesn’t know a thing about self-preservation.”

Mercy said, “I don’t know,” for what felt like the hundredth time that day. Then she said, “He shot Cyrus Berry. That must count for something.”

“No,” said the ranger. “Because he wasn’t protecting himself. He was protecting whatever’s in that back car. And whatever’s there, he thinks it’s worth dying or killing over, and shoots like a man who believes that the law is on his side.”

“Oh, he does, does he?”

“I know it when I see it.” Out from a side vest pocket, he retrieved a device the size of his palm. It was shaped like a cucumber, one half made of metal, the other made out of glass. He pressed a button and the glass end glowed red.

“That’s . . . what’s that?”

“It’s a light for when you want a light that other folks can’t see,” he explained, taking the paper from her hands. He smoothed the sheet out across his knee and waved his device over it like a conductor’s baton. “Red light don’t show up very bright, not at a distance.”

“Fine, but what does the paper say?” she asked.

“It’s a deed.”

“Like, a property deed?”

“Yup. Printed up by Uncle Sam.”

“Whose deed is it?” she asked.

“Nobody’s yet. It’s blank. A grant to farm land in the Iowa territory.”

She turned it around on his knee and leaned in close, trying to see for herself. “Mr. Korman, there were scores of these things, flying around in that car.”

“What?”

“There were . . .” She gestured wildly. “Somebody had opened a crate, by accident. The windows are all open in there, and the wind was throwing these papers around like a tornado. This one just stuck to me, that’s all.”

“And they all looked the same?”

She said, “They were all about the same size and shape.”

The ranger fingered the paper, crinkling it and uncrinkling it as he thought. “They’re moving money and land deeds west. But why? I don’t suppose you were able to sweet-talk that captain out of any useful information.”

“Not a thing. Except,” she said after a pause, “that he don’t know what’s in that back car. Whatever Purdue is doing back there, it’s coming down from on high. Somebody over the captain’s head signed off on it.”

“That figures. The captain strikes me as a competent officer, and competent officers are never given enough information to work with. All right, here’s what we’re going to do: You’re going to go into that next car and bring out the captain. Tell him Berry’s dead, and I know what happened, and I want to talk to him.”

“I thought you were going to go storming the place, guns blazing or somesuch.”

“Now, when did I say that? I was going to knock on their door, but now I’ve got a better idea, and that better idea is you. Now, go on. Get him out here.”

“I’m not dragging him into a trap, am I?” she said levelly, meeting his eyes above the gleam of the red light, which still burned in his hand.

“No, you’re not dragging him into a trap. For God’s sake, woman. Just bring him out here.”

She got up to do so, but just as she was about to stalk over to the door, a fresh battery of pops and pings reminded her that people were shooting just outside, and she should keep her head down. Stooping a bit, she grasped the latch and swung the door out, propping it there with her own body while she stretched her arm and reached for the other door. Finding it, she hauled herself across the gap, wishing for a helpful porter as she did so. Then she knocked on the door and whipped it open.

As she threw herself inside, letting the door slam shut in her wake, she found herself staring at three drawn rifles and a pistol, all of which lowered upon recognizing her. “Mrs. Lynch,” sighed the captain, whose pistol sagged at the end of his hand. “What are you doing back here?”

“I need a word with you,” she said. “In private, in the next car over. Please. It’s urgent,” she emphasized in such a way that she prayed he’d be intrigued and not suspicious. “It’s about Cyrus Berry, and the last car. There’s a problem, Captain.”

They knelt there facing each other at opposite ends of the gold-reinforced car. Most of the stray sheets of paper had been contained, but a few still fluttered wildly, and one got sucked out a window as she waited.

He came to some decision and said, “Fine.” He stuffed the gun into his belt and staggered over to meet her, saying, “Hobbes, you’re in charge without me.” Then he took her by the arm with one hand and opened the door with the other.

Together they navigated the windswept, bone-cold gap with grunts and waves, handholds and curse words. Finally they stood on the passenger car’s platform, ready to dive back inside to the relative quiet of that vessel, but she stopped him from opening the door. She put a hand up behind his neck and drew his face down close to hers, so he could hear her and she wouldn’t have to shout quite so loudly. “Before we go in there,” she said, “Cyrus Berry is dead, and Mr. Purdue has killed him. The Texian saw the whole thing happen, and the doctor did, too.”

His eyes widened just as hers narrowed against the wind and darkness.

She continued, “Mr. Korman is just inside this next car. He demanded a word with you. He’s on this train on Republic business, not Confederate business, and I think he’ll tell you the truth.”

The captain made a face that said he feared she overestimated the Texian’s purity of motive, but he took the door handle anyway, lifted the latch, and let them both inside.

Horatio Korman was sitting splay-kneed on one of the padded benches, his gun on the seat beside him-not a threat, but a notice that there was absolutely a gun, and simultaneously an advertisement that he was not brandishing this gun. He looked up from under his hat, the shadows from the train windows curling across his face in thick gray squares that offset the black of the car’s interior.

“Captain MacGruder,” he said. He did not stand as Mercy and the captain slunk over to sit across from him on the compartment bench. “As you know, my name is Horatio Korman. As you don’t, I’m a ranger from the Republic of Texas. And you, sir, have one hell of a problem on your hands.”

“It’s a pleasure,” the captain said without looking remotely surprised about either of these revelations. “Now, what the hell is going on?”

“Your sweet blond private is dead and draining in the caboose, shot and killed by Purdue, who you don’t appear to have much control over. That little fiend is holed up back there, and I think he’s got orders that come down from a higher rank than yours.”

In the same unhappy, flat tone, the captain said, “Your assessment of the situation is just about right.”

“You’ve almost got the Rebs run off, now, haven’t you?”

The captain didn’t answer for a moment. All three of them were holding still and quiet, listening to the reluctant patter of bullets, fewer and fewer, coming from outside. Finally he said, “I believe that situation is under control, yes.”

“Good. Because-”

“Good? Now, you wait here a minute, Ranger Korman. I know damn good and well where your sympathies lie, and I want to know-”

“No, you listen to me, Captain,” the ranger said, escalating the interruptions. “Right now I’m on the side of whoever can get me to Salt Lake City fastest and safest. For all your talk and bluster of this being a civilian train, we both know that ain’t the case. I’m here on a duty that doesn’t have diddly-squat to do with your war.”

The captain said, “I can’t say I believe you. Somebody on this train has been sabotaging the ride by bits and pieces, and somebody has been feeding the Rebs information ever since we pulled the civvies on at St. Louis.”

“And you think it’s me?” Korman asked, patting himself on the chest. “Son,” he said, even though the captain was probably older than him, if only by a few years. “I’ve got better things to do with my time than to slow up a train that I very badly need. And, anyway, you can quit worrying about your spy. He’s dead.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It was Berry, don’t you get it? That boy may have hailed from Ohio, but he had heartstrings that went a lot farther south. You’re just lucky he wasn’t any better at spying. Blame it on his youth, I suppose. Did he know about the gold you’ve got in that next car?”

MacGruder flung a glare at Mercy, but she folded her arms and ignored it.

“Of course he knew about it. You saw him in there, propped up on it, shooting out at the meat-baskets and their riders.” But something in his voice betrayed an uncertainty. “At least, I thought he was shooting. Maybe he was picking bats out of the sky. Goddamn.”

The ranger went on. “Did he know about whatever’s in that back car?”

“I doubt it. But to think, I just sent him back there, giving him every excuse in the world to bust it open, find out, and spread the word around.”

Mercy said, “You told me you didn’t know if it was bodies or something stranger. If you ever said such a thing in front of him, he would’ve passed it along, don’t you think?”

“I’ll tell you what I think, Mrs. Lynch,” the captain said. “Rumor’s had it that you were in league with the Texian all this time. I tried to look the other way-”

Before he could hard-boil his sentiments into an accusation, she blurted out, “I’m from Virginia. I worked at the Robertson Hospital in Richmond. That’s the only thing I ever lied to you about. My husband was Phillip Lynch, and he died in the Andersonville camp, and I’m on my way to see my daddy.” Though she sat beside him, she slid her legs around so she could face him. “It’s the same for me as Mr. Korman. We just need to get west. Neither one of us would’ve done anything at all to slow this train or harm it. Neither one of us has anything to do with spying.”

Her words hung in the night-black air. Between the three of them, they gradually realized that no one was shooting anymore, except far away, and in what could only be described as a retreat.

As one, they rose up and went to the train’s south windows and pressed their faces to the panes where the glass hadn’t broken. Mercy said, with honest relief, “Look, they’re leaving!”

And Korman said, “Thank God.” Then he turned to the captain and said, “You, and me, and her-” He indicated Mercy. “We’re in this together now.”

“How you figure?” he asked.

“Because we’re all three being betrayed by somebody. I know my word won’t mean much, but let me tell you this: I knew one of the boys who led the early raid that didn’t go nowhere. They were just scouting, you knew it the same as I did. But I shot ’im a telegram back in Topeka, trying to get a bead on what’s going on here, and I’m hoping for a response in Denver. As a gesture of good faith, I’m willing to share that with you, and send that fellow a warning to leave the train be.”

“And why exactly would you do that?”

The ranger gritted his teeth and said, “All I want to do is get to Salt Lake City. This train will get me there faster than any other, and it’s in my best interest to see it arrive in one piece. Don’t be dense, man. I’m trying to help.”

The men stared each other down, until Mercy interjected, “Fellas, listen. All God’s children got a job to do here, and all any of us want is to head out west and to mind our own business. But I think we need to mind someone else’s business for a bit.”

The captain asked, “What do you mean by that?”

And she said, “I mean, I think we should find out what’s in the back of this train. Because if it’s a bigger secret and something more important than a few tons of gold and a whole passel of land deeds,” she let this information slide casually, “then Mr. Purdue is just about the last man on earth I trust to be in charge of it.”

“You’re suggesting that I disobey orders.”

“You were suggesting that Cyrus Berry do the same,” she countered, “when you sent him back there. You want to know; you’re just afraid to find out. But whatever’s back there, Purdue is willing to kill for it-and he’ll kill his way up the chain of command, I bet. Whatever it takes to sneak his treasure up to Boise.”

In the absence of bullets spitting every which-a-way, the train slowed from its breakneck pace into something more ordinary-not leisurely, but not straining like the engine was gobbling every bit of fuel it could burn, either. The silence that followed, without anyone shooting and without anyone in the passenger car at all, was broken only by the unrelenting wind whistling through the broken patches in the glass.

But off in the distance-terribly far away, so far that they couldn’t have seen it clearly even if the sun had been out-a tiny glimmer raced along the horizon line. And from that same position, miles and miles away, the cold prairie air brought a rumor of a tune, one long note held high and loud like the call of one train to another.

Mercy asked, “What’s that?” and pointed, even though they were all looking at the same thing, the same minuscule glowing dot that sailed smooth as a marble along some other path, somewhere far away.

Horatio Korman adjusted his hat, jamming it farther down on his head to fight the pull of the rushing air, and said, “Unless I miss my guess, Mrs. Lynch, I’d say that’s probably the Shenandoah.”


Fourteen | Dreadnought | Sixteen



Loading...