The first few days of the ride to Salt Lake City were tense and dark, overshadowed by a cluster of clouds that never quite dropped snow but never quite went away, either. The train rolled, darkened and patched, along the rails and out of the prairies and plains of the Midwest, climbing in and around the edges of the Rockies, and then up, and around, and through the narrow places and the frightening black tunnels. Gradually the train took on elevation. Sometimes the going was easy and the train chugged with something like merriment, as if it were a dog being taken for a swift sprint around a yard. But sometimes when the sky hung low and the train’s course took it higher up against the clouds, every firing of every piston felt like a horrendous chore that it didn’t wish to perform.
In Denver, the Dreadnought had experienced the addition of a piece of equipment that looked like it’d been forged in hell.
This new addition was a snowplow fixture as large as a small cabin, designed to replace the pilot piece in case of a storm-or, worse yet, in case of an avalanche across the tracks. The snowplow was circular and made of reinforced steel and cast iron, of such a size that four or five people could’ve stood within its opening. But inside the circular frame it was fitted with hundreds of interlocking and overlaying blades, angled to move snow, rocks, or anything else that was unfortunate enough to land within its path. It looked less like something made to move snow than something designed to bore tunnels in rocks . . . or process entire herds of cows into ground beef.
Every once in a while, often in the very deepest part of the night when things were the quietest, Mercy could hear something whistle or whisper among the mountain peaks and across the wide, blue lakes that met between them. So far away, and she could hear it faintly but sharply. It made her think of the prick of a pin left inside a dress after alterations: sudden, bright, and small, but faintly alarming.
One time, upon seeing that her car-mate was still awake, Theodora Clay blinked sleepily and asked out loud, “What on earth is that noise?”-but not so loudly that any of the few travelers around her, all the remaining civilians, would awaken.
Mercy murmured, “I couldn’t say.”
“It sounds like another train.”
“It might be, someplace far off. There are other tracks, here through the mountains. Other paths.”
Miss Clay yawned and said, “Yes, I suppose. They must all feed together for a while, until the pass at Provo.”
“What’s so special about the pass at Provo?” Mercy asked.
Miss Clay said, “Supposedly it’s the only spot where the mountains are passable for hundreds of miles in either direction. All the railroads have made bargains, deals, arrangements; however it works. Everything going west goes through that pass, except the rails that run from Chicago to the coast, and the ones that go through New Orleans, through Texas. I expect it will be impressive. All those tracks, side by side. Crowded into one stretch like that. I wonder how long it runs.”
And then they slept. In the morning, there was breakfast in the caboose with the inspectors, who never seemed to sleep, but always seemed very, very watchful. After the inspectors had retired with their coffee, Miss Clay put in an appearance. She seemed to have a special sense for when the foreign men would be absent, so she could “eat in peace,” as she put it.
Mercy privately thought that it was very like a Yankee, to go to war over the rights of people whom you’d rather die than join for tea. But in the name of peace, she kept this to herself.
Malverne Purdue also kept to himself, in that corner beside the caboose’s rear exit. He’d become a fixture there, a signpost of a man whose duty was only to declare, “No trespassing,” and threaten to enforce it with the Winchester across his knees. By and large, he was ignored, except when one of the porters would ask him about a meal, or Oscar Hayes would arrive to relieve him for a few hours of sleep.
Mercy could see him from the corner of her eye while she sipped her coffee, which she liked a bit better than the tea, all things being equal.
Theodora Clay could see Purdue, too, though she went to great and chilly pains to pretend otherwise. If ever she’d once looked at him with a kindly eye, the world wouldn’t have known it now. A reasonable observer might’ve assumed that there had been some kind of falling out between them, but Mercy figured that Miss Clay was only keeping her gaze clear lest her eyes reveal something of their adventure in the rearmost car.
Tea came and went, and with it the dull daily routine of life aboard the train rolled on, every bit as monotonous as the tracks beneath the wheels. Mercy missed the two easy virtue girls who’d taught her how to play gin rummy; but they were gone, and even if Miss Theodora Clay had owned a deck of playing cards, Mercy wasn’t entirely sure she would’ve liked to play.
Soldiers patrolled the three remaining passenger cars, from the gold-filled car up behind the fuel cars to the caboose, where a scowl from Malverne Purdue ended the circuit before it could reach the refrigerated compartment. Down to a man, they were tense and unhappy, all of them listening, always listening, for the hoot of a train whistle coming up along the tracks to meet them-trying to beat them-to the pass, beyond which there was no reasonable way for one train to sabotage another. On the far side of the pass, the rails went their separate ways once more; so if they weren’t caught before sprinting that span (which Captain MacGruder had told her was nearly thirty miles long), the odds of them being affected by the engine of southern origin were virtually none. If the Shenandoah didn’t blow up the tracks by then, the Rebs would be out of luck.
Mercy didn’t think to wonder what had happened to the doctor until someone mentioned that he’d debarked in Denver, same as almost everyone else. This peeved Mercy greatly. No military regiment, legion, group, or gathering ever went anyplace near danger without a medical professional in their midst, or at least that’s how it ought to go. And the truth was, even if Mercy had been a proper doctor with a proper doctor’s training and experience, she had only her small satchel filled with basic equipment at her disposal. Anything much more serious than a broken bone or a bad cut could only be managed, not treated.
She felt alone, in the middle of everybody-even the other civilians who hunkered in the center passenger car and read books or played cards or sipped out of flasks to pass the time. She was the only medical professional of any sort on board, which meant that every stubbed toe, every rheumy eye, and every cough gravitated her way for analysis and treatment. It was the nature of the beast, she supposed, but even these small ailments did little to punctuate the wary boredom.
No one ever really nodded off anymore.
No one ever really paid full attention to the books, or the cards, or the vest-hidden flasks; no one enjoyed the passing scenery as the black-and-white mountains scrolled past and the freezing waterfalls hung along the dynamited cliffs like icicles off a gutter. No one listened with both ears to any of the chatter, or the rolling, pattering passage of the train. Everyone kept one ear peeled for the sound of another whistle splitting the icy air.
And finally, on the fourth day, they heard it.
It squealed high and sharp.
The whistle blew again, and the echo bounded around between the boulders and the tiny glaciers that slipped with monumental slowness down the perilous slopes.
And everyone seized up tight, hearts clenching and unclenching. One by one, everyone rose and went to the south side of the train, from whence the noise had come. And soon, all the faces on board-except perhaps the determined and devilish Malverne Purdue, and maybe the conductor, up front and invisible-were pressed up against windows that could not have been colder if they’d been sheets of ice instead of glass. Everyone breathed freezing fog against the panes, wiping it away with gloved hands or jacketed elbows. Everyone strained to hear it again, hoping and praying the first shriek had been a mistake, or had only been a friendly train, passing on some other track on the approach to the pass at Provo.
Norene Butterfield groped at her niece’s arm and asked, “How far are we from the pass?”
And Miss Clay said, without taking her eyes off the smudged, chilled window, “Not far. We can’t be far.”
“And once we get to the pass, we’re safe, aren’t we?”
But Miss Clay did not answer that part. She didn’t exchange the knowing glance Mercy shot her either, even though both of them knew good and well that the pass was a death trap if both trains were penned within it simultaneously. Only on the far side would they find anything like safety.
Mercy climbed down from the seat upon which she’d been kneeling, and whirled into the aisle. Horatio Korman had been hanging about in the third passenger car, and the captain had been hanging about in the first one-or else, in the car with the gold, from which she’d been specifically forbidden from entering again unless directly ordered otherwise. With this in mind, she turned to the right and headed for the rearmost door, opening the latch and dousing the steam-warmed car with a torrent of frigid wind. She shut the door as fast as possible, tugging her cloak up around her head and pulling it tight over her ears, trying to filter out the worst of the blizzard as she felt about for the rail and the platform space over the coupler. She moved to the next car easily, despite the temperature and the wind that felt strangely dry, as if it belonged someplace hellishly hot and not this winter place covered in snow.
In the third car, she found a sight similar to the one in the second, where she’d left Miss Clay and Mrs. Butterfield-except here, most of the faces pressed to the windows belonged to men in uniforms. Horatio Korman stood against the far wall alone, arms folded. He glanced up at Mercy when she came blasting in, accompanied by the weather, and he gave her a frown that told her to shut the door, already.
She did so and approached him, cheeks flushed from even that brief exposure, and hands shaking despite her gloves. She said, “Is it them, do you think?”
“Yeah, I think it is.”
“Can they catch us?” she asked for what must’ve been the hundredth time.
He sucked on his lower lip, or on the gobbet of tobacco he undoubtedly stored within it. Then he reached for a window, lowered it, and spit quickly before closing it again. His mustache ruffled and his hat pushed back by the wind, he shook his head slowly and said, “Not ‘can they?’ but ‘when will they?’ We’re less than five miles from the pass, and once we’re in, it’s cliff face straight up and down, on both sides of the rails-an expanse that runs maybe a quarter mile wide, with about twelve sets of tracks running through it.”
Mercy tried to imagine it: a frozen corridor like a tremendous wagon track in the snow, with no way up or out to the left or right, no way to back up and go around, and a race to get through to the other side.
He said, “If we’re lucky, they’ll only trail us. They can shoot at the train’s rear car all day-ain’t nobody inside there gonna give a shit. Or if we’re lucky another way, they’ll be stuck on some track far over to the south, far enough that they’ll be hard-pressed to do us too much damage, because they won’t be close enough, even if they manage to pull up alongside us.”
Pierce Tankersly turned away from his window and asked the ranger, “And what if we’re not lucky? What then, Texian? What will they do?”
“If we’re not lucky?” He adjusted his hat, bringing it back down low enough that he could’ve grazed it if he’d lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “They’ll overtake us, and muck up the tracks, just like they promised.” Tankersly gave him a quizzical look implying the soldier knew precious little about trains, so the ranger clarified. “If they blow the tracks up there, this train will go off the rails. Literally. Most of us’ll probably die on impact. Some of us might live to get shot, or freeze to death.”
The private said, “Then what are you standing over here for, man? They may be your allies on the map, but you’ll get killed same as us if they manage to undo the Dreadnought! Take up a position-hell, go find the captain and see where he’d like an extra man.”
But Korman said, “No. I can’t do that. I won’t shoot at my own fellows, or fellows that might be mine. I wouldn’t do it even if I thought it’d make a lick of difference to whether or not they take this train. That just ain’t how it works, junior. And if the shoe were on the other foot, you’d probably treat the situation just the same.”
“It doesn’t matter what foot what shoe is on. I’d fight for my life, regardless!” the young man said.
The ranger replied, “Well, all right, maybe I’m wrong. But I’m not fighting for my life. There’s nothing I could do to slow down that train, and not much you could, unless you want to go up to our front cars and run those weapons she’s pulling down. Otherwise, best I could hope to do is keep them out of the passenger car. I don’t know how many of them are dumb enough to try to board us like a pirate ship moving at ninety miles an hour, but I’m willing to bet the answer is none too many.”
Closer, definitely closer, the whistle blew again-shaking the sheets of ice that hung off the mountain.
Tankersly said, “What the hell is wrong with you, man? What if they do board us? What if, somehow, they stop us and you survive it-then what?”
“Then nothing,” he replied, as easy as thanking the porter for a cup of coffee. “They know I’m on board, and they won’t shoot me.”
“Then maybe someone should!” The private swung his revolvers around and pointed both at the ranger, who didn’t move a muscle.
He only said, “You? You want to shoot me? I guess you could, and I could even see where it might make sense to you. But keep this in mind: I could’ve taken you down one by one, throwing your corpses overboard without thinking twice about it. For the last five minutes I’ve had a nice fat shot at a whole row of you dumb sons of bitches, all of you with your backsides ripe for the aiming at. But I didn’t shoot you, because I ain’t got no problem with you. I’d like to see you succeed. I’d like to make it to Salt Lake City in one piece, and killing you off won’t do anything to help me reach that goal.”
He looked like he wanted to spit again, but maybe he was out of tobacco, or maybe he didn’t want to pull down the window and get another blast of cold air in the face. “Hell,” he said instead. “I’ve said it since I got on board, and I’ll keep saying it until I get let off or get thrown off: I’m not here to fight against you, on behalf of the Confederacy or the Republic or anybody else. Y’all leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone, like I’ve left you alone all this time. And that’s the best offer you’re going to get from me.”
Somewhere beyond the window, the whistle blew again. Even Tankersly looked over his shoulder, sensing it was close. And since the ranger hadn’t drawn, and hadn’t budged, the private reluctantly turned away. But he said, “I’m watching you, Korman.”
To which the ranger said, “Knock yourself out. Maybe I’ll do a little dance.”
Mercy turned away from the conversation and went to a spare square of window in order to see outside. At first she thought the glass was going opaque from too many eager breaths being puffed upon it, but then she realized that the visibility was shrinking from outside, not within. A dusting of snow billowed down through the pass-which she could see, just barely, because of the way the track bent ahead and showed her the curve of the train.
There it was: a gap cut between the mountains. At this distance, it looked immense, though she knew that the ranger must be right, and it couldn’t be any wider than a quarter of a mile. Feeding into it were about a dozen tracks, all lined up side by side so they made a pattern of stripes squeezed into the narrow corridor.
And off to the south, she could see it now: the Shenandoah.
It streaked up to meet them, a bullet of a machine, drawing only four cars as opposed to the Dreadnought’s eight (if she included the snowplow fixture, which was of such terrific size and weight that she might as well). It was behind them, yes, and coming up from an arcing track that surely added more distance to their flight. But even from her spot on board the Union train, Mercy could see that the other engine was flying like lightning. Surely it was difficult to judge, but it couldn’t be her imagination that the Shenandoah was gaining ground, and as her eyes tracked the gap and the other engine’s path, she could’ve sworn that the ranger was right-it wasn’t a matter of if, but of when.
The foremost door on the third passenger car blew open and Captain MacGruder came shoving through it, with Inspector Galeano at his side. The captain pointed out a spot on the defensive line and told the Mexican, “There. And we’ll put your partner at the first car so we can make use of you both.”
The inspector pulled a gleaming, silver-wheeled pistol out of a carved-leather holster and let it spin as he twisted it with his wrist and up into his hand. “S'i, se~nor. Wherever you need me.”
Then the captain turned his attention to Horatio Korman and said, “You, come with me.”
To Mercy’s mild surprise, the ranger did not object. Instead, he immediately stepped into the aisle and replied, “I thought you’d never come around.”
The nurse saw where they both meant to go and she asked, “Come around to what? Where are you two going?” Instead of answering, they moved to the rearmost door and opened it. She followed, even though she had a feeling that one or both of them was on the verge of ordering her not to. Before the wind had died down from their crossing of the couplers and the gap, she had entered the caboose behind them and drawn the door shut, clipping off the wild, freezing air and sealing them into something like a very uncomfortable vacuum.
She turned around just in time to see Captain MacGruder level his service revolver at Malverne Purdue and tell him, “Out of the way, Purdue.”
But Purdue was already on his feet, Winchester in hand and aiming right back at him. He said, “No.”
The caboose was empty except for the five of them: Mercy, the ranger, the captain, Purdue, and the loyal Oscar Hayes, who looked like he’d rather be almost anywhere else at that particular moment. The silence that fell in the wake of the no was thick and muddled with the ambient roar of the train and the wind, and the occasional whistle of the incoming train and the Dreadnought itself, which finally saw fit to answer the Shenandoah.
The ranger had not yet drawn either of his visible guns, which had been returned to him after the last stop. But one hand hovered in a warning, prompting Mercy to wonder how she’d not yet noticed that he favored the left.
Without lowering his gun or so much as blinking, the captain said evenly, “Purdue, I know you’ve heard it. Have you seen it, out the window here?”
“They’re gaining on us, and soon they’re going to catch us. If they beat us to the pass, we might be done for. Do you understand me?”
With equal deadpan delivery, the scientist said, “I do, but I believe my experiments are more important than a few casualties.”
“Believe what you want. That engine is moving four cars, and it’s pumping on a new draw-the same kind as our engine, but lighter and more powerful. That’s not fear, that’s a fact-isn’t that right, Ranger Korman?”
“That’s right. The V-Twin system will move that engine with almost twice the power of the one we’re riding now, and they’re pulling half the weight.”
“The Dreadnought can outrun them.”
“The Dreadnought is towing too much to outrun that Rebel sprinter,” the Texian insisted.
“Then we’ll shoot her off the tracks. I remain unconcerned,” said Malverne Purdue, who also remained ready to fire at the drop of a hat.
Horatio Korman said, “Maybe, maybe not. But if she gets ahead of us, and gets any lead on us-as she almost certainly will-they’ll take out the tracks and then we’re all of us dead.”
“We’ll blow it off the tracks before it passes us.”
His patience running thin, Captain MacGruder said, “It’s not going to get a chance to pass us, Purdue. We’re going to drop some weight and outrun it. We’ll beat it to the punch if we can shake some of our load; but we can’t let them get ahead. We’re all done for, if we do.”
Purdue said, “Well then, I guess we’re all shit out of luck, because you’re not unfastening this car,” he said, indicating with a thrust of his shoulder the rearmost vehicle, the hearse. “You wouldn’t do that, would you? You wouldn’t disrespect the war dead like that, would you, Captain?”
“Right now the needs of the living come first. Now, get out of the way, Purdue, and let us have a go at those couplers.”
“Over my dead body.”
“I’m not afraid to arrange it,” said the ranger, his hand still vibrating an inch over the butt of his gun where it jutted out of his belt.
The captain said, “The dead will have a lot of company if we don’t let that car go.”
Oscar Hayes had his gun out, but he didn’t know where to point it. He wouldn’t shoot the captain, surely, but his wrist was sagging in the direction of the ranger, just in case he needed to shoot someone. Purdue hadn’t budged. The captain and the Texian were so tense, they could’ve twanged like harp strings.
And the Dreadnought pulled them all closer to the pass with every second.
“What have you got back there?” asked the captain. “What have you really got, that’s what I want to know.”
“Dead people. That’s all.”
Mercy decided it was finally time to jump in. She said, “He’s moving a drug called yellow sap. He wants make a weapon out of it.”
Most of the eyes in the caboose and at least one gun shifted focus to aim right at her.
The ranger’s didn’t. He didn’t take his glare away from the scientist, because he already knew what was in the caboose. He added his right hand to his left, and now both palms dangled over both butts of both his guns.
She blurted out the rest. “The dead men back there didn’t die in war. They died from too much sap. But the stuff the sap’s made of-it does a whole lot worse! It makes people crazy, so they eat each other!”
The captain’s gaze whipped back and forth between them. He demanded of Purdue, “Is she telling the truth? Is she?”
Not quite rattled, but taken off guard, Purdue grumbled, “She doesn’t know a damn thing.”
Mercy thought maybe Horatio Korman would back her up, but he didn’t-perhaps because he wanted the scientist and his assistant to forget about him, and fight with the captain instead. So she defended herself, saying, “I do, Captain-please, you have to believe me! And you,” she said to Purdue, “if you want to prove me wrong, then show him what you’re hoarding back there!”
“I want to see your papers again,” the captain said to the scientist. “I want to see who processed them, and who signed them, and-”
“What difference does it make?” demanded Purdue, changing his approach. “Yes, we’re making weapons-that’s what armies do! What’s carried in the last car is important to our program-more important than anything we’ve ever been able to create so far. The potential,” he said, pleading now, almost. “You have no idea what potential.”
Mercy said, “Just this once, Mr. Purdue’s right, Captain. You have no idea of the potential. You have no idea what it does to people-what it could do to the South, yes, but what it could do to anyone. Anywhere. The gas that makes the sap, it kills without caring what uniform anybody’s got on.”
The captain weighed this, even letting his guns lower a fraction of an inch while he thought. He said, “I have my orders, too, Purdue. And I have my men to protect, and you’re not one of my men. Those dead fellows in the back, there’s nothing I can do for them now-and if the Union wants its weapon, the Union can send somebody back here for that cargo. They can forgive me later, or court-martial me if they’d rather, because by God, we’re-”
Purdue’s posture changed ever so slightly, and at the same time his fingers made the slightest jerking motion. But before he could interrupt the captain with a bullet through the heart, Horatio Korman’s guns were in his hands-both of them, faster than a gasp. He fired them both, one at Oscar Hayes, and one at Malverne Purdue.
Hayes went down without a sound, and Purdue’s rifle muzzle flew skyward, firing one outstandingly loud bullet straight through the ceiling.
Before Purdue could fall all the way to the floor, the captain was on him, kicking the big gun away and pushing his booted foot up against the injured man’s chest. Korman’s bullet had caught Purdue through the shoulder, up near the junction where it met his neck. He was bleeding obscenely; it gushed over his torso as he flailed to stop it, but he failed to push the captain’s boot off his chest.
He burbled, “You can’t. You can’t do it. Everything depends on it! My career depends on it, and maybe the Union-the whole Union!”
Horatio Korman said, “Your Union can go to hell.” And he sheathed his guns with a spin that put them down gentle into the holsters.
“I’d rather it didn’t,” the captain said. He discerned with a glance that Hayes was dead, then checked Purdue. “This bastard might live, at least long enough for me to have him tried. You would’ve shot me.”
“You’re going . . . ,” he gagged. “To cost us . . . everything.”
“No, you were going to cost us everything, and now you aren’t. Ranger, do you know how to undo these couplers?”
“I’m sure one of us can figure it out. If not-” He turned to Mercy. “Mrs. Lynch, how about you run and grab us the nearest porter?”
She nodded and stumbled away, wondering if she should patch Mr. Purdue or leave him, as she suspected that, with prompt and thorough attention, he might well survive the wound.
By the time she returned with Jasper Nichols, the ranger and the captain had managed to disengage the coupler all by themselves, and the rearmost hearse was disappearing slowly into the distance. The Dreadnought put on an extra burst of power to match the ones it’d made in its flight from the defeated meat-baskets; and, less the weight of the missing car in the rear, the whole train lurched forward with renewed vigor.
Mercy turned to the porter and asked, “What about the caboose? Can we get rid of that, too?”
With a look out the window, he said, “Ma’am, we could, but it might not do us no good. Look.” He pointed, and she saw that he was right.
The Shenandoah was coming up around the curve, wending up the arc of its own track, closing in on the pass. There was a gap of maybe a hundred yards between the end of the Dreadnought and the beginning of the next engine.
Mercy breathed, “Oh God.” And at the same time the captain said, “God help us.” Horatio Korman said nothing.
The porter said, “We’re already too late. Here they come, and here’s the pass. We’re right up on it.”
Besides, as the porter explained, the real weight on the train came from the forward cars and the snowplow attachment-which was to say, the fuel and ammunition car . . . and, as Mercy, the captain, and the ranger privately assumed, the car stuffed with gold bars. But a lighter train meant a faster train, never mind the food stores or the stoves or the cooking units in the caboose. It had to go. All of it had to go. They could grab a new one of everything in Salt Lake City, provided they ever arrived there.
Mercy shoved one arm up underneath Malverne Purdue just as the captain ordered her to do so. She lifted him like an unhappy calf, and heaved him across the couplers into the third passenger car. “Come on, now,” she told him. “And if we get a free minute or two, I’ll do what I can to close up that wound.”
The scientist didn’t object, but he didn’t help her much, either. She dropped him into a seat and patted him down quickly for guns or other weapons. Finding only a small derringer and a boot knife, she took them both and pocketed them. And when she was reasonably confident that blood loss and lack of agency would keep Mr. Purdue out of trouble, she stood up and went back into the aisle.
There, she nearly collided with Captain MacGruder, who said, “Get the inspector over there to help you get him to the next car.”
“What?” she asked, but Inspector Galeano was already at her side, taking the man’s other arm and lifting him back up again. “We’re moving him again?”
“I’ll help,” the inspector said.
“All right,” she replied dubiously, and grabbed the stray, flopping arm of the scientist, who was becoming more rag doll-like by the moment. “If we don’t set him down someplace soon, and for good, we’ll lose him yet.”
Captain MacGruder overheard this, and he said, “Now ask me if I care. Move him up to the second passenger car, and set him down there. If he lives, he lives. If he doesn’t, I’ll shed a little tear and move on with my afternoon.”
He continued to shout orders up and down the line, though since it was he and the ranger who had worked out the coupler disconnects, these two men returned to the gap. In less than a minute, the caboose unhitched and sadly, slowly, slipped away into the Dreadnought’s wake.
The two men flung themselves back inside right before Mercy and the inspector opened the forward door, and she heard him delivering more orders every which-a-way behind her. Then she understood. They weren’t just leaving the caboose and the rearmost hearse car; they were leaving this last passenger car, too.
“Everyone, forward!” she heard the Texian cry, and between herself and Inspector Galeano, they wrestled the inert Malverne Purdue into the second car.
Mrs. Butterfield and Miss Clay were startled by the sight of the bleeding man, though neither seemed moved to help settle him someplace. Mercy took care of that herself, lying him down in a sleeper car and feeling at his neck for a pulse, which came more faintly with every breath. The man’s skin had gone white, with a bluish gray around the creases at his eyes and mouth; but the nurse stood by her original assessment that he could yet be saved . . . even if it was only for a court-martial and hanging.
Mercy stuffed a handkerchief against the wound and dashed to her seat for her satchel, from which she grabbed gauze and wrappings. She applied them to the best of her ability while the inspector served as a silent assistant-taking what she discarded, holding what she needed, and generally doing a damn fine job of staying out of her way. She thanked him with murmurs and tried to ignore the frantic hollers of the passengers, soldiers, and porters as the train lost one more segment and the third passenger car drifted away behind them.
“It’s madness!” Mrs. Butterfield declared. “Where will all of us sleep?”
To which the Texian said, “Out in the snow, with the coyotes and the mountain lions-if we don’t keep this train ahead of that one,” and he pointed out the window.
The old woman gasped like she might faint, and Theodora Clay stepped up and slapped the ranger across the face. “How dare you!” she exclaimed, not really asking a question but making an accusation. “Trying to frighten an elderly lady like that!”
“I’ll frighten her and worse, if it gets her out of my way,” he said, unmoved and apparently unstartled by the prim but sharp attack. “Now look out that window and tell me you think we’re going to beat them through Provo.”
As he said it, the pass loomed up and swallowed the train, car by car in quick succession. The shadows from its immense walls were cut sharply up, and as high as the sky to the right . . . and up to the clouds on the left, where the Shenandoah was not gaining as swiftly as before, but remained close on their tail.
“Everything that can go, is going,” the captain chimed in. “Now make room.”
Though three passenger cars had made for a fairly spacious arrangement for two dozen military men and half that number of civilians (plus the conductor, rail men, and assorted porters), reducing that number down to two cars made for cramped quarters, and Mrs. Butterfield had a point: only one of these cars was a proper sleeper. Mercy couldn’t imagine anyone being so narrowly focused as to be worried about that fact right this second; but a glance at the matron, with her sour face and her arms crossed and clenched around her bosoms, told the nurse that she still had a whole lot to learn about people.
With much more shouting, ordering, and cramming of people up and forward-and into the next car up, where there was temporarily more room-the Dreadnought shed the third passenger car as smoothly and strangely as the previous two and picked up speed.
Mrs. Butterfield complained as she looked out the back window, “Soon you’ll have the lot of us sleeping in the coal car.”
Horatio Korman said, “No ma’am-just you.” Then he immediately returned his attention to something the captain was saying, and to the window beyond the captain’s shoulder, where the Shenandoah was drawing up nearer, ever nearer, clawing up to the Dreadnought’s pace by feet-not by great leaping yards, not anymore, but still coming. The ranger said, “It’s not a bad idea, actually.”
Captain MacGruder said, “Are you kidding me?”
“No, I’m not. And I’m not just talking about her. I think we could fit the lot of them into that car just past the fuel car. The one with the special armor inside,” he said, flashing a meaningful look at the captain.
Mercy caught it, too. She said, “Yes, Captain. There’s only-” She did a quick count. “Eight civilians-or ten if you count the inspectors, but I don’t think you should. I don’t know about Mr. Portilla, but Mr. Galeano looks like he knows his way around a gunfight, and he has his own pistol.”
“Nine, if we count you,” he pointed out.
“So count me. You might need me, and there’s nobody else, if anybody gets hurt. But you can stack these eight folks up inside the-” She almost said the gold car, but stopped just in time. “The car up there. They’ll be safer there than anyplace else. Who cares if they see what it’s carrying?”
This perked ears all around, and loudly voiced questions of, “What’s it carrying?”
The ranger said, “There ain’t much time. Get them out of the way, and the rest of y’all can fight your war like civilized killers.”
Mercy almost expected MacGruder to keep fighting, but he decided in a snap, “Fine. Do it. Comstock, Tankersly, Howson-get these folks up to that car. You know the one.”
“What? Now where are we going?” Theodora Clay demanded.
“Someplace safe,” Mercy said. “Safer, anyhow. Just go. Take your aunt and hunker down.”
“I think not.”
“Think whatever you want, but would you at least get Mrs. Butterfield up front? I doubt she’ll let anyone else take her.”
Miss Clay hesitated, but she flashed a glance out the window at the onrushing train, and recognized the truth of their words. “Fine. But I’m coming right back.”
Hastily the handful of leftover civilians was loaded, shoved, and urgently led to the front of the train, where the former car of mystery was waiting. It had been cleared out by the time they arrived, so that something like an aisle was open in the middle of the floor. Seeing the arrangement as she helped with the last of the evacuation, Mercy was glad for the quick improvisation of the soldiers.
Morris Comstock asked her, “Are you coming?”
She realized she and Miss Clay were the last civilians there. “Yes,” she said.
Miss Clay said, “I’m coming, too.”
But Mercy beat her to the door and slammed it shut, closing herself and Comstock out onto the coupler passageway. She drew a bar down and fixed it, effectively locking the whole group into the car. She took a deep breath, turned to the private first class, and said, “I hope I’m doing the right thing.”
Morris Comstock looked at the irate face of Theodora Clay, her gloved hands beating against the window as she screamed, and he said, “The best thing that can be done, I expect. They’ll be safe in there,” he added, speaking loudly so that he’d be heard over the wind.
“If they aren’t, there’s not much we’ll be able to do for them, anyway.”
Together, as if they’d had the same idea at the very same instant, they each gripped the vibrating iron rail and leaned out to see how close the front of the other train was. It was staring straight ahead up the track, coming right for them.
The far side of the pass was a cliff as cutting and certain as the one to their immediate right-so close that, sometimes, Mercy was quite positive, she could’ve reached out a hand and dragged it along the icy boulders if she wanted to lose a few fingers. But the sides of this astonishing pass rose up so high that they shut out the sun and cast the whole man-made valley into shadow, and through the veil of this shadow the face of the Shenandoah was an angry thing. She could make out its round front with the streamlined pilot piece and its billowing stacks. And when a faint curve of the track allowed for something less than a head-on view, she could also see one side of the pistons, which pumped the thing faster, harder, and with greater efficiency than the engine that drew her own train forward.
Morris Comstock said, “This is going to be bad,” as if Mercy didn’t already know it.
“Hurry,” she said, opening the next door and letting them both back into the first passenger car.
Morris Comstock spotted Lieutenant Hobbes and said, “Sir, the civilians are secured in the forward car,” with a snappy salute.
“Glad to hear it. You-” He pointed at Mercy. “-the captain wants you back in the next car.”
“I’m going,” she told him, pushing sideways past Morris and shuffling through the narrow aisle, alongside the rows of men setting up for trouble-lining up by the windows, lowering them as far as they’d go, and breaking them out if they’d frozen shut. They ducked down low behind the passenger car’s protective steel walls and waited for someone over there, on the other track, sidling up close, to fire the first shot.
In the second car, Mercy seized her poor, battered satchel and slung it across her chest, where it bumped against the gunbelt she’d been wearing all morning. Until the bag bounced and reminded her, she’d completely forgotten about it. But whom was she going to shoot? The Rebels, if they got close enough? No, of course not. No sooner than Horatio Korman would’ve shot at them. The Union lads on the train? No, not them either.
But given the havoc and the horror of the moment, being dragged along a track at impossible speeds, and chased and harried around every bend and up every craggy plateau, she wore them. They were loaded, but they remained unfired for the time being.
“Captain MacGruder?” she called, not seeing him immediately.
He stood up from behind one of the sleeper compartments, where he’d been hovering over Malverne Purdue. “Over here, Mrs. Lynch. Tell me, do you think you can fix him?”
“Jesus couldn’t fix him,” she said under her breath. “And I don’t know if I can patch him up, if that’s what you’re asking. I wonder why Ranger Korman didn’t just go for the heart.”
“There’s no telling. Or, I don’t know.” The captain shrugged, using his foot to nudge at Purdue’s limp leg. “He moved real sudden with that gun. The ranger’s good, but there were two men to shoot. In all fairness, the bastards both went down.”
Mercy said, “I’ll make him comfortable. That’s all I can do.”
“I didn’t ask you to make him comfortable. Put him on a bed of nails if we’ve got one. But I’d like to see him survive long enough to explain himself.”
“I’ve done my best,” she said. The captain went away, back to the front lines on the southern side of the train, where the windows were all open now-wind pouring through them, blowing everything that wasn’t nailed down all over the place. And snow came inside with the wind: it had begun as a faint, spitting bluster of tiny shards of ice, but it was becoming something denser, something with more volume and sting when it slapped against faces and into eyes.
Convinced there was nothing more she could do for the unconscious Purdue, she left him, drew the curtain to close him into the compartment, and stood up so she could see what was going on. It was almost enough to make her want to dive back inside and join the scientist in a defensive huddle.
The Shenandoah was so close she could see it now, its engine straining and speeding along, the pistons churning and pumping. She could also see faces-that’s how close it had come-faint but definite, lining the windows in a mirror of the men on the Dreadnought. Men also dashed to and fro along the Rebel engine and its scant number of cars, climbing with the certainty of sailors on masts or cats along cupboard shelves. It was strange and awful, the feeling of pride combined with horror Mercy felt as she kept her eyes on them, tracking one after another like ants on a hill.
While she stared, and while the mountain shadows flickered and flew across the pass and across the trains, a tense pall settled upon the men and women of the Dreadnought. Maybe, Mercy thought, the same moment of hesitance was making the Shenandoah quiet, too. It was one final moment when things might possibly go another way, and the confrontation might end in some other fashion-or never occur at all.
And then, with the sound of a planet exploding, the moment passed and the battle came crashing down upon them.