Mercy could not be certain, but she believed the first blow happened simultaneously, as if both trains’ patience simply exhausted itself, and everyone shot at once-taking a chance on starting something awful, rather than receiving something awful without kicking back.
Or maybe the Dreadnought fired first.
And why shouldn’t it? The Union train had the most to lose, being stuffed with gold and paperwork and soldiers, and being an expensive piece of war machinery to boot. Heavier, slower, and more valuable, the Dreadnought had one primary thing going for it: immense firepower. As Mercy scanned the cars of the Shenandoah, tugged behind one another like sausage links, she saw only one fuel car and only one vehicle that looked remotely prepared to move armaments and artillery. The engine itself was armored and reinforced, yes, but its gunnery lacked the forethought and sophistication of the Dreadnought’s assault-oriented design.
So the Dreadnought’s strategy was simple. It had to be simple, for the options were so strictly limited.
Stay ahead of the Shenandoah. Don’t let it outpace us.
Blow it off the tracks if you can, or if you have to.
The nurse would play the moment over and over in her head, on an infinite loop that would surprise her sometimes, startling her out of a reverie or out of her sleep, for the rest of her life.
And she would listen to it, watch it, scrutinize it through the windowpane of her memory and wonder if it mattered. Surely it didn’t matter who fired the first shot, or what small action caused the event to begin. But merely knowing that it might not matter did not make it bother her any less, not at the time and certainly not in retrospect, and it did not keep that moment out of her waking nightmares.
Her terrified and very human reaction was to duck down, to dodge, to lie on the floor and pray.
Ears ringing, she staggered to her feet and tried to hold that position-upright, still crouched, out of the line of fire. But the train was reeling. It rocked on the track even as it hauled itself forward, keeping that pace, not letting the Shenandoah come up too close but throwing everything it had at the other train. The recoil from the engine’s cannon, the unevenness of the track, the gathering clumps of snow that must surely have knocked the balance here and there . . . these things made it hard to stand and hard to concentrate, never mind how the sound of war and windows breaking compressed and reverberated within the steel and cast-iron tubes.
Gunpowder smoke accumulated despite the errant wind, and driving snow collected inside the car-dusting the seats and the corners, and drifting wherever it found a relatively quiet eddy in the raucous, rattling mayhem.
It was hard to breathe and even harder to see, but one of the sharpshooters was sharp-shot, and he tumbled backwards off the seat where he’d braced himself. Mercy ran to his side. She knew the soldier on sight, but didn’t recall his name. His face was surprised, and stuck that way.
Someone shouted. Mercy couldn’t make it out; but someone tripped over the corpse and nearly kicked her in the shoulder, all by accident, all in the calamity of the moment. Sensing a way in which she could be useful, she drove her arms up underneath the dead shooter and man-hauled him backwards across the aisle and against the far wall beneath a window that faced the sheer cliff.
The forward door burst open and Horatio Korman stood framed within it, holding it ajar and fighting with the wind to keep it from flapping him in the face. “Mrs. Lynch!” he hollered.
“Next car up! Come on now, we need you!”
“Coming!” she said as loud as she could, but no one could have heard her over the din. “I’m coming,” she said again, and even if the ranger hadn’t caught the words, he caught the sentiment. He extended a hand to her, and only then did she realize she was still half crawling in the aisle.
“Hang on,” he told her. He seized one of her wrists and lifted her bodily up, into the doorway, and then he pressed her against the wall to the side of it-outside in the frozen storm of rushing air-as he jammed the door shut behind himself. Together they stood on the place above the couplers, the platform that shifted back and forth as if deliberately designed to keep anyone from standing upon it-while the train was shaking so badly, and snapping like the sharp end of a whip every time a new cannon volley was fired from the engine up front.
“Hang on,” the ranger urged again. He took her hand and placed it on the rail.
She squeezed it, feeling the iron leech a sucking chill up through her gloves. It was a skinny thing, made only to guide, not to support. Certainly it’d never been made to support a wayward passenger under circumstances such as these.
“Hurry. We’re wide open. If they see us, and if they get a shot, they can take us.”
She wanted to believe they wouldn’t-just like before, maybe, when they’d seen a woman on the train, and maybe since they knew Ranger Korman was present . . . maybe they’d know him by his hat and his posture. But then she realized something astonishing: His hat was gone, either blown out into the Utah mountains or stashed someplace in one of the cars, she didn’t know which. His dark hair whipped wildly, with the one white stripe flickering down the middle like a candle’s flame.
“I’m coming,” she said, and the act of opening her mouth to tell him let the winter into her mouth and down her throat. She choked on the words and squinted against the wind, though it cut tears out of her eyes and froze them on her skin.
Blindly she groped for the door-and, still more on her knees than on her feet, she found it. The ranger braced her, using his body to give her as much cover as he could; and when the door opened, they toppled inside together.
Mercy hit the floor hands-first and sorted herself out enough to ask, “Who needs me?” only to see Private Howson holding his hands over some gaping bit of bloody flesh at his throat. “Let me see it,” she commanded, approaching him on hands and knees, and none too steadily even at that.
Something bright and loud exploded very close.
The windows splintered and blew inward. Soldiers screamed with dismay or pain, and the day was bright with a split second of terror and chaos. When it had passed, there was blood-much more blood-and the powder and slivers of glass joined the blowing snow within the passenger car.
“Nurse!” someone cried.
She said, “One at a time!” but she looked over her shoulder anyway, and saw Pierce Tankersly wearing a long slash of red across his forehead and one shoulder, and a shard of glass sticking out of one hand. It was bad, but not as bad as Private Howson’s gushing throat wound, so she gestured and said, “Over there, Mr. Tankersly. Against that wall. Anyone who needs help, against the far wall!”
Only one other soldier joined Tankersly. In the swirl of the moment, Mercy couldn’t see who it was-but if he was strong enough to shift himself to a new position, he could wait for her attention.
She pried Howson’s hands away from his throat and saw what looked like a bullet wound scarcely to the left of his windpipe, low enough that it had probably clipped his collarbone, too. “You,” she said. “Let’s get you over here,” and she half led him, half towed him over to the nearest bench in the car that wasn’t a sleeper. She stole a cushion off a seat and put it under his head, trying to estimate if he was breathing his own blood, and determining that he wasn’t.
“Sorry about this,” she said preemptively. She lifted his head up with one hand. Though it must’ve hurt him, he didn’t make a sound, and only clenched his jaw and ground his teeth. Then she said, “Good news. Bullet bounced a little, probably off this bone”-she pointed to the spot beside his sternum-“and it went right on out the back of your neck.” She tried to keep her mouth down close to his head so he could hear her when she reassured him, “At least I don’t have to do any digging.”
While she was wiping, checking, and stuffing gauze, the porter Cole Byron appeared at her side. He asked, “Ma’am, can I help you here? I don’t have a gun, but I want to help!”
“Help!” she echoed. “Absolutely. I’d love some help. Hold this fellow’s shoulders up for me, will you? I’m trying to tack up the exit wound.”
With the porter’s assistance, she stabilized Mr. Howson as well as he was likely to be stabilized. Then she turned back to Mr. Howson and said, “You’re not bleeding anymore, or not much anyway. Will you be all right here for a few minutes? You’re not going to up and die on me if I go pull some glass out of your fellows over there, will you?”
He squeaked, “No ma’am, I won’t.”
“Good. You hold tight. Goddamn this glass is everywhere!”
Mercy turned her attention to the two men who sat quietly beside the far wall, just as she’d ordered them to. Doing her best to keep her hands and knees and elbows off the shard-covered floor, she hunkered and scooted over to Pierce Tankersly and the other fellow, who was named Enoch Washington. “Mr. Tankersly,” she began, but he cut her off.
“I think you’re too late for Enoch,” he said.
Another explosion pounded the car and it rocked, leaned, and settled again on the tracks, nearly flinging half the car’s occupants to the floor or into some unhappy position. “I’m sure he’s-,” she started to say, but one look at him, now flopped over onto the carpet, told her otherwise. She pulled him over onto his back and exclaimed, “How did he get cut there?”
She pointed at his thigh, where there was a gash long enough for her to jam both thumbs inside. In the dead man’s hand, she saw the shard covered in gore.
“He pulled it out. Oh, sweetheart,” she told him uselessly, “you shouldn’t have pulled it out!” Not that it would’ve made much difference if he’d left it in. The big artery had been cut and he’d bled out fast. All the needles and thread in all the world couldn’t have saved him, unless maybe he’d gotten cut lying on an operating table. But probably not then, either.
Tankersly said, “Ma’am?”
“Be right with you,” she told him, and she pulled Enoch Washington’s body out of the way, back behind the last row of seats where he wouldn’t trip or distract anyone. Then she returned to Pierce Tankersly and said, “I’m here, I’m here,” in a breathless voice that he certainly couldn’t have heard very well. “Let me look,” she said. “Let me see.”
“Is it bad?” he asked. “When the window blew”-his lip was trembling, maybe with cold, maybe with fear-“it caught me in the face.”
“Can you see all right? Blink your eyes,” she told him.
He obliged and she said, “Already I can tell it’s not so bad. Both eyes look fine.”
“Then why can’t I see? Everything’s all blurry!”
“It’s blood, you daft fellow. The cut’s along your forehead and-no, put your hand down. I’ll take care of it in a minute. Head wounds, they bleed something awful, but your eyes aren’t hurt and you’re not bleeding to death, and those are the big things right now.” She began patting and cleaning him where she could, and she gave his good hand a rag to hold up to his forehead. “Lean back,” she requested. “Lean your head back against the wall so you’re looking straight up at the ceiling, will you do that for me?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, “But how come?”
She said, “Because . . .” at precisely the moment she whipped the long piece of glass out of his palm. “I didn’t want you to watch me do that.”
He squealed and gasped at the same moment, giving himself hiccups.
“I knew it’d smart.”
“It’s gushing! Like Enoch!” he said with panic.
“No, not like Enoch. There’s nothing in your hand that will make you bleed like he did,” she promised. But she did not add that he’d cut some muscles, and surely some tendons, too, and the odds were better than fair he’d never have the correct and proper use of all the fingers ever again. “This isn’t so bad,” she said it like a mantra. “Not so bad at all. I want you to do something for me,” she said as she took a rag and balled it up, then stuck it in his hand and wrapped some gauze around it.
“Sit on it. Put it under your thigh, right there. The pressure’ll make the bleeding stop.”
“You’re sure the bleeding’ll stop?”
“I’m sure the bleeding’ll stop,” she said firmly. “But it might take a few minutes, and I don’t want you to get all scared on me. That knock on your head needs some pressure, too, and that’s what your good hand is for, just like you’re doing now. Keep your head up, and keep that rag held on it just like that. When it’s dry, I’ll stitch it up for you. You just sit here, and stay out of trouble. I’m going to check on Mr. Howson.”
“He going to be all right?”
“Hope so,” she said, but that was all she said, and she didn’t make him any more promises.
She didn’t make it back to Mr. Howson either, though she could see him reach up with one hand to scratch a spot behind his ear, so he was clearly still breathing and kicking. Someone called out, “Nurse!” She didn’t recognize the voice, but when she turned around, she saw Morris Comstock holding up one of his fellows by the shoulder and one arm.
“Coming!” she said, and she scurried forward, only noticing when she did not hear the crunch of glass that there was far less underfoot. Over at the far end of the car, Cole Byron was scooping and scraping the floors with a set of burlap bags, collecting the glass and shoving it into the rear corner where the body of Enoch Washington rested.
She approved, and would’ve said as much except that Morris Comstock was calling for her again, and whomever he was holding was utterly slack. She helped the soldier lower his comrade down onto a row of seats, but she shook her head. “He’s dead, Mr. Comstock. I’m very sorry.”
“He might not be!” Morris shouted, and there were tears at the edges of his eyes, either from the wind or from the situation, she couldn’t say.
She said, “He took a bullet in the eye, see? I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she repeated, even as she felt at the man’s neck to make doubly sure that all the life was gone from him. “Help me move him, over there with poor Mr. Washington.”
“You want to just toss him in a corner?”
“Should we leave him here, taking up space and getting in the way? I’m sorry,” she said yet again. “But he’s gone. Help me, help me take him over there and we’ll remember him later.”
The Dreadnought accented her sentiment with a round of volleys that rocked the Shenandoah, sending it swaying on the tracks at such a tremendous degree that as Mercy stood in the corner beside the corpses, she could see the holes that had been blown in the other train’s side. And she could also see that still, yes, again, and more, it had gained on them.
Risking her own neck, eyes, and hands, she went to a window by the rearmost door, and she looked out over the tracks between the trains and counted them. “One, two, three,” she breathed aloud. “Four. Just four sets.”
“Maybe eighty feet, at the outside,” Horatio Korman said. He’d been sitting there beside the door, on the other side of the aisle. “Maybe eighty feet between us and them. They won’t try to cross it,” he assured her.
She noted that his hat was back. It jerked and fluttered despite its firm grip around his skull. “You think?”
“They ain’t stupid,” he said, reclining and putting his booted feet up onto the seat beside him.
“They’re chasing this train,” she said, as if she could think of no dumber course.
“Again I say, they ain’t stupid. They need the gold, and they want the deeds so they can burn them. Last thing the Rebs need is fresh bodies to fight, when they don’t have any fresh bodies themselves. All they have to do is get ahead of us.”
She tore her gaze back and forth, between the Shenandoah and the Texas Ranger, one in frantic motion and the other the very picture of forced calm and resignation.
Mercy asked, “You think they’re going to do it? You think we’re all going to die?”
“I think they’re going to do it. And I’m pretty sure some of us are going to die. Fat lot of nothing I can do about it, though,” he said, settling his back against the northern wall of the passenger car. The cliffs zipped past behind him, only feet from his head, throwing off shadows and sparkles of light that glanced off the ice that made his face look old, then young, then old again.
“So you just . . . you give up?”
“I’m not giving up anything. I’m just being patient, that’s all. Now get yourself away from the window, woman. You dying won’t do anybody any good, either.”
She said, “I should go back to the other car, see how they’re doing.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it. Look out there; look at that train. They’re right up on us. Side by side, neither one of us with anyplace to make a retreat. Just these goddamned cliffs, and just this goddamn ice and snow in these goddamned mountains.”
Suddenly, Mercy did not care very much at all what the ranger recommended. She grabbed the door’s handle, since she was so close to it already, and she gave it a tug and threw herself outside, all alone, into the space between the cars. She pulled the door shut and half expected Horatio Korman to follow after her, trying to stop her, but he only stood-she could see him through the window. The way his arm moved, she thought he, too, was reaching for the latch, but either she was wrong or he changed his mind.
He mouthed, Be careful, and turned away.
She was careful, and it was a jerky shuffle from one car to the next, but she made it-faster this time, even faster than when he’d been pushing her along, helping her find the handholds.
She stepped inside the next car, and the wind came billowing up behind her, shoving her cloak over her face and flapping it up around her arms until she closed the door and leaned against it, catching her breath. “How’s everybody in here?” she asked in a hoarse shout.
Half a dozen voices answered, and she couldn’t sort out any given one of them. But she saw two men lying haphazardly over the seats, and half inside the sleeper cars. She immediately went to the fallen soldiers.
One was dead, with most of his face missing-and what was left was frozen in such a state of shock that Mercy wished to God she had something left to cover him. She pulled his body off the seats and drew him back to the corner to leave him there, just like she’d been leaving the bodies in the next car up. Then she reached for one of the sleeper car curtains and yanked it down, popping all the tiny rings that held it up in one long, zippered chain. She dropped the makeshift shroud down over him and went back to the second man, who was in much better shape, if unconscious.
It was Inspector Galeano, with a large red mark in the shape of a windowpane across his face. She didn’t know if he’d fallen or if the window had blown inward, but he was only coldcocked, and not otherwise in serious peril, or so Mercy ascertained as she pulled him onto one of the sleeper beds and gave him the once-over. His prominent, stately nose was broken, but his pulse was strong and his pupils reacted in a satisfactory fashion to light and shade.
Mercy took a moment to wipe the drying blood off his upper lip, and then she slapped at his face, not quite hard enough to sting. “Inspector? Inspector?”
After a few seconds, he answered with a string of words muttered in Spanish. Mercy had no idea about a bit of it, but he was talking, and that was progress.
“Inspector Galeano? Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” he said this time. “Yes. I’m-” He sat up and swooned slightly, but recovered and patted himself all over. “Where is my gun?”
“Can’t help you there,” she told him. “How’s your head?”
“My face . . . hurts,” he said, trying to frown, stretch his cheeks, and wrinkle his nose all at once.
“You’ve busted your nose, but if that’s the worst you get out of the day, we’ll call it good, all right?”
“All right,” he said, but he repeated the phrase as if he wasn’t sure what it meant. His eyes were scanning the glass-covered floor.
“Your gun,” she said, guessing what worried him. “Is that it, over there, under the-?”
He saw the spot she indicated and said, “Yes!” before she could finish. And he threw himself up and off the recliner before she could stop him.
“Watch for the glass!” she yelled, but she’d already lost his attention. He was crawling back up to the window, checking his ammunition and readying himself for more. “Watch for the glass,” she said again, uselessly. It was everywhere, and it wouldn’t do anyone to watch out for it, because there was simply no avoiding it.
Mercy scanned the car for a porter and didn’t see one. She had her backside to the forward door when it opened and Morris Comstock stood in its frame, calling, “Mrs. Lynch!” at the top of his lungs.
“Coming!” she said, rather than ask what precisely he needed. No one ever hollered her name without needing something.
When she rose, she was nearly sick to her stomach, from the incessant motion and the blood all over her hands-with powdered glass sticking to her skin and drying there-but also from the sight of the Shenandoah, because she could now see that she was looking at its two rearmost cars and the engine was pulling ahead of the Dreadnought. On her way to assist Mr. Comstock, she leaned her head around and saw that, yes, the southern engine had passed the northern one; and as she watched, the Rebel craft leaped on the tracks with a burst of speed, as if some final gear had been engaged and this . . . this was the fastest it could move. Even if it couldn’t keep it up long, it didn’t have to.
She said, “Oh God,” and Mr. Comstock took her by the elbow and said, “I know!”
Back once more through the windswept breach, and back once again into the first passenger car, she came face-to-face with the captain, whose old head wound was bleeding again-or else he’d come by a new one, near the same spot. He said, “The inspector!”
He meant Inspector Portilla, who was facedown and being addressed by Lieutenant Hobbes, who was trying to turn him over and wipe away whatever blood he found. Mercy said, “Let me see him!” and rushed to his side. His uniform was scorched, cut, and tattered, and a large hole was pulsating just above his heart, toward the center of his chest.
All the wounds had been like this so far-all the men were firing out the windows, which gave them cover below the shoulders . . . and gave the men on the other train an open target at everything above them.
“Inspector!” she said, and drew him almost into her lap. “Inspector!”
He didn’t answer, and his eyes were rolling, not fixing on anything. “Help me,” she said to Morris Comstock, but suddenly he wasn’t there-so she looked around and saw Cole Byron, who met her eyes and darted to her side. “Help me,” she said. “Gently; we have to move him gently.”
Together they did so, retreating to another sleeper compartment and stretching him out. She tore at his shirt, popping the buttons and revealing a chest with a smattering of salt-and-pepper hair and a hole the size of her fist. “Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed. “What hit him?”
Cole Byron said, “I think they’re mounting antiaircraft over on the Shenandoah.”
“If they aren’t, they might as well be,” she said. Upon fishing around in her satchel, she realized she was out of rags. Undaunted, she reached for another curtain, yanked it down, and tore it up. The porter followed her lead and helped with the tearing. As she stuffed one wad of thick wool fabric into the wound, she tried to talk to the inspector, even as she was increasingly convinced that the cause was lost and they were about to be short one tall, light-skinned Mexican.
The wound’s pulsing became erratic and jerky. She could feel it ebb and surrender under her hand, where she held the balled-up curtain rag firmly in the wound, just in case there was some miracle imminent and the bleeding might be contained. But no miracle was forthcoming. The heart stopped altogether.
More antiaircraft shells went splitting through the car, and a splatter of someone’s blood shot across her face in a red, hot streak.
“God Almighty!” she shrieked, and came up to her knees shouting, “Who’s next? Who just took that hit?”
“Ma’am!” someone made a weak response, and it was Morris Comstock again-the first man she’d treated on board the train. He was clutching at a place on the side of his chest, and his hand was soaked with blood, and so was his shirt.
“Mr. Comstock!” She ran up underneath him, catching him as he came down from the window like a sack of potatoes. “Good heavens, look at you. Here we are again,” she said, right into his ear, since his head was slumping just above her breasts. “We’ve got to quit meeting this way. Tongues will begin to wag.”
He gave her a pathetic grin, and his eyes rolled back in his head.
She shook him, and lowered him to the ground-once more summoning the Pullman porter. Together they moved this man, too, to the sleeper car where the Mexican inspector had died, though Mercy noted that his corpse had been moved over to the corner . . . presumably by Cole Byron, though she hadn’t seen him do it.
“Mr. Comstock, please stay with me now,” she begged. He mumbled in response, but his words came out in no particular order.
The chest wound was bad, but not so bad as she feared; and when she looked back to the car wall where the private had been hunkered, she understood why. The steel on the car’s exterior had taken the brunt of some shell, but that shell had penetrated by at least half a foot, bashing into the torso of Mr. Comstock.
Mercy put her head down over his chest and stared, and listened-straining to hear the faint sounds of a ruptured lung over the sounds of a battle and a rampaging train all around her-but she didn’t catch any whispers of air coming and going in a deadly leak, so she almost felt a tiny bit optimistic.
She looked up and smiled frantically at the porter. “The wind’s knocked out of him, but he’s not shot!” The flesh around the tear was beginning to bruise, and it would be a nasty one, nearly the size of his head when all was blossomed and rosy. It was likely that a couple of his ribs were broken as well. She went to work covering the gash, cleaning it, and trying to hold enough weight down on it to make the bleeding stop.
A great pulse of fire came from the front cars of the Dreadnought; she heard it and felt it in every bone, in every muscle. She felt it in the veins that throbbed behind her eyeballs, and she clutched at the nearest seat back, squeezing Morris Comstock’s limp hand because it was something to hold, and the horror and the noise and the gunsmoke were more than she could bear alone. Even the porter had left her-she didn’t know where he’d gone, but at this point, she trusted that he had a good excuse. She only patted at Comstock’s sweat-drenched hair, which was melting, having frozen into tiny, fluttering icicles while his face had been near the window.
And then. Like that.
As quickly as the shelling had begun, it ended.
Then there was no more firing at all, from either train, though the near silence that remained in its wake was no silence at all. It was the pounding of heads and the ringing of ears that had too long heard bombastic artillery fire, and could no longer process its absence.
Strangely, Mercy found this almost more frightening than the onslaught. She asked, “What’s going on? Captain MacGruder?” She looked for him and didn’t see him immediately, so she asked, “Lieutenant Hobbes, what’s happening?” Hobbes gave her a look that said he had no better idea than she did.
Then she noticed that the ranger had joined them. Even he looked confused. She asked him, too-“Ranger Korman?”-but he shook his head.
Then the forward door opened, and through it burst Mrs. Butterfield; and Mr. Abernathy, the blacksmith from Cincinnati; and Miss Greensleeves, lately of Springfield, Illinois; and Mr. Potts from Philadelphia; and Miss Theodora Clay, who looked exactly as homicidal as a soaking wet cat; all of whom were supposed to be fastened into the gold-filled car as a matter of safety.
Mrs. Butterfield began screaming something about her rights as a paying passenger, but Mercy didn’t hear most of her tirade, because the conductor came shoving his way past the lot of them. Then she understood. He’d had the gold car opened (by force, no doubt) so that he could pass through it, temporarily leaving his attendants to guide the train. He was red faced and panting, and his expression was grim but rushed.
He said, “Look!” and he pointed out the window, and everyone saw-the Shenandoah had completely overtaken them and was quickly leaving them behind.
Captain MacGruder sized up the situation fastest, and asked, “What do we do?”
The conductor said, “There’s a tunnel ahead-about two miles up-and I must assume-”
“We have to stop the train,” said Lieutenant Hobbes, who had heretofore not led any charges, but had done an admirable job of following orders. This was the first time Mercy had seen him come to the front of the line.
Not caring who’d said it first, or who was in charge, the conductor said, “The ranger said it, and I believe it: they’ll blow the tracks, or whatever they’re going to do, as soon as they get enough of a lead on us to make it happen. So we’re stopping the train. We’ll defend it from a standing position, if we have to!”
“That’s madness!” cried Mrs. Butterfield, who forced her way through the crowd. “You can’t stop the train! We’ll all freeze to death out here, or those filthy Rebels will come back and finish us off!”
“It’s better than barreling forward into a trap!” the conductor cried right back at her. “I’ve given the order to throw the brakes, and preparations are being made in every car. I’ve told the porters to ready themselves-”
“Every car?” Mercy asked.
“Yes-there’s a brake on every car. There has to be. We can’t stop otherwise,” he explained hastily.
The ranger stepped up to join the conversation and said, “Two miles, is that what you said? Can we stop this snake in that kind of time?”
The conductor said, “We’re going to try,” as he spun on his heels and went barging back toward the Dreadnought, assuming that the message would find its way along the cars that were left.
“Everybody’s going to have to brace,” the captain said. “Find a spot and settle down. Help the fellows who are hurt. Someone go to the next car-you, Ranger, will you do it? Head to that next car and tell them. Pass it down.”
Horatio Korman gave him a head dip that was as good as a salute, and went for the rearward door. He was scarcely on the other side of it when the slowdown began-not in a jerk or a lurch, but with a drop in speed that made those on their feet sway, and grasp instinctively for something solid.
A shout went up from the front of the train, and a quick piping of the whistle-not a full-blown blast, but a series of short peeps that must be some sort of signal. Then a great squeal screamed from a dozen points along the cars as the brakes were applied, and leaned on, and struggled against, and the great, terrible, foreshortened and battered train began to grind to a ghastly, troubling stop that could not possibly come fast enough.
Whatever luggage had thus far remained in the storage bins fell in a patter that bounced off heads, backs, and shoulders. People squawked; Mrs. Butterfield wailed. Mercy staggered and tried to grab the edge of a sleeper car wall in order to steady herself, but she failed and fell backwards. The captain caught her and pulled her down into the aisle, where bits of glass were still sparkling, sliding, collapsing into dust beneath boots and shoes, and cutting into hands, forearms, and knees.
“Captain,” she asked him, not shouting anymore, even over the grinding howl of metal tearing against metal and fighting for traction. She could only spit out her question in a choked gasp, but his head was close to hers, so he could hear her anyway. “What will happen, when we stop? Can we back up, and go the way we came?”
He shook his head, and his wind-tousled hair brushed up against her ear. “I don’t know, Mrs. Lynch. I don’t know much about trains.”
After another series of notes from the whistle, the brakes were tested yet further, jammed yet harder, and pulled with another synchronized arrangement of men leaning on poles and posts. They prayed for the immense machine to slow down, end the push, and stop the forward clawing; and the Dreadnought responded.
Sluggish and huge and heavy, it weighed the commands of the brakes against the pure inertia that fought like a tiger to keep it rolling along the snow-dusted tracks.
But down, and down, and down dropped the speed. Down, but not enough.
Mercy clambered to her feet, clutching at the captain, at the seats, at the frames of the sleeper compartments. She raised her head enough to see that the end of the pass-the immense, coal black tunnel-was right upon them, and despite all efforts to the contrary, they were going to slip right inside it-right into darkness; right into a stretch that was surely a trap.
And there was nothing to be done about it.