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Twenty

Dreadnought

Back inside the passenger car, Mercy was nearly numb.

Miss Clay joined her momentarily, and from the other door at the other end of the car, Ranger Korman entered, looking ruffled but unscathed. A few others trickled in behind him, until there were no more footsteps on the steel roof and everyone was crowded into the sleeper car.

Above the car and all around it, the snow was blowing now-billowing harder and faster than any blizzard couldve tossed it. Flung by the spinning blades of the plow, the snow gushed up, out, back, and around the passenger cars until it almost felt like riding through another tunnel, this one white and flecked with ice.

It was flecked with other things, too.

Here and there, a streak of bright brown blood went slapping across the side of the train, splattering into a window. A few fingers flipped inside. Chunks of hair. Bits of clothing, and a shoe that-upon inspection-still had most of a decomposing foot inside it. The rotary plow took the undead attackers and treated them no differently from the ice and snow that had clustered on the tracks, chopping them up and tossing them, shoveling them out of the way with its rows of biting blades.

Mrs. Butterfield was crying in a corner; her legs were drawn up beneath her, and her skirts billowed mightily, though she patted at them, trying to push them down, between sobs.

Theodora Clay was not at her side.

Instead, Miss Clay was a row away, reloading. And when she finished reloading, she was hanging out the broken window and picking off more living corpses one by one if they were able to reach the train and cling to it. Next to her, Ranger Korman was doing the same, and on the other side of him, Inspector Galeano did likewise.

Mercy looked to her right and saw the captain, grim-faced and soot-or gunpowder-covered, glaring out at the Shenandoah. Upon it, the surviving men were waving desperately-she could see that much even without a glass, theyd come so close. Some of the undead had wandered away from the Rebel engine in search of the louder, more glittering prey of the Dreadnought; and now it seemed almost possible that the distant soldiers might make a break for it. But where would they go?

As if hed heard her thinking, the captain said, We arent going very fast. Barely staggering. A live, running man could catch us, easier than these dead things.

Lieutenant Hobbes shoved his way past the first passenger car door. His timing was almost perfect. He, too, had been looking at the other train and calculating the odds with his eyes. He pointed over at the other engine, now not even a quarter of a mile away, and said, Theyre men, sir. Same as us. Soldiers, is all.

I know, said the captain.

One of the soldiers down the line opened his mouth to object, but the captain cut him off by saying, Dont. If it were us out there, wed hope the other men would lend a hand, wouldnt we?

It was Morris Comstock who weakly said what several others were no doubt thinking. The blood loss mustve made him insubordinate, or maybe he was only too tired to restrain himself. Theyre dogs, sir. Look what theyve done to us. Look what theyve done to the Dreadnought, and to the train! And to me! And to- He looked around at the wounded. All of us, sir!

Dogs? Captain MacGruder whipped around, pulling himself out the window and glaring beneath eyebrows that were covered in frost. He sniffed, and rubbed his nose along his sleeve to either warm it or dab it. Dogs did this to you? A man who fights dogs is something even lower. I fight men, Comstock. I fight them for the same reason they fight us: mostly because someone told them to, and because this is just the way the lines drew up, us on one side, them on the other.

He held his position, breathing hard and thinking. One leg on the seat of a lounger and one knee raised up, braced against the interior trim. His elbow holding him steady, his gun still partly aimed out the window, at the sky.

Nobody said a word, until he went on. Those things-he waved the barrel of his gun down at the screeching hordes-they arent men. They arent even dogs. And I wont leave anybody to em. No- He cut off Comstock with a syllable. Not anybody.

Ranger Korman, who had not budged this whole time, said, I like the way you think, Captain. But what precisely are we going to do for those boys over there?

Inspector Galeano tried, We could . . . clear a path for them. Maybe?

Thatll be just about the best we can swing, I think. The ranger nodded. Well have to get up front, use the engines defense systems, and line up inside here, too, and take down as many as we can. If were lucky, at least some of those fellows on the Shenandoah might make it to a car.

Theodora Clay, of all people, mused, If only we had some way to reach them-to let them know we mean to help.

Lieutenant Hobbes said, The engineer has an electric speaking trumpet. I saw it, up front.

Go get it, the captain said. And fast. We dont have long. All right, folks. Who has ammunition left?

Most of the soldiers grudgingly admitted that they still had some, and the ranger was still well stocked, but Mercy was out. She said to the captain, Ill do it.

Youll do what?

Ill go on top of the car, and Ill holler to em with the speaking trumpet. You men with the ammunition, you clear the way if you can.

Now, dont be ridiculous, Mrs. Lynch. Well get one of the porters to-

No. Ill do it, she told him. Im out of bullets, and most of you soldiers are better shots than me, anyway.

When Lieutenant Hobbes returned with the speaking trumpet, she swiped it out of his hand and took off.

Out on the passenger car platform, the world was white and in motion.

Still moving at a crawl, still throwing chunks of dead bodies left and right, the Dreadnoughts plow cast every flake into a canopy of glittering ice and frothy pale coldness. It arced overhead and off both sides, wings made of snow, twenty feet long and high. Mercy wondered how much faster the engine could pull and how much higher the wings would stretch. But there wasnt time to wonder much, and the ladder was slicker than ever, covered with pureed ice and freezing gore.

Her gloves tried to stick, for they were also damp and willing to harden.

She pulled them off with her teeth, shoved them into the pockets of her cloak, and then put her bare skin on the frigid metal. Every rung burned, and at least one took small, ragged strips from her fingers, but she climbed and climbed, and then she stood on top of the car, upright and blasted by the wind and the flying snow.

Mercy hoped her cloak was blue enough to signal with. She hoped that the large red cross on her satchel might show across the yards between her and her countrymen, stranded on their engine island.

She waved her arms, stretching them wide and flapping her hands; and when it appeared that they saw her, she lifted the speaking trumpet to her mouth and pulled the lever that said ON. A squeal of feedback was loud enough to pierce her eardrums, even over the roar of the wind and the plow and the tracks clattering past, but she steadied herself-spreading her legs and bending them, just enough to give herself some balance and some leverage. When she was at her full height, the black cloud of coal smoke went streaming over her head, mixing with the snow and covering her with smears the color of pitch and dogwood blossoms.

Shenandoah! she hollered as loud as she could. The machine picked up her voice and threw it even farther, as hard as the plow threw the snow. When the Dreadnought starts shooting, make a run for these cars!

Her mouth hurt. Her lips were freezing and numb and the words sounded slurred, but she said them anyway, screaming into the cold. We mean to cover you!

At first she couldnt tell if theyd understood, so she lifted the speaking trumpet again to repeat herself. But they nodded, and were drawing closer with every moment, so that new details about their appearance became apparent every second.

They huddled together, then separated again and readied themselves to jump or slide down off the engine at a moments notice.

She didnt know what ought to happen next.

They were ready. She was finished.

The Dreadnought surged, or perhaps its plow snagged on something particularly juicy, and the car upon which Mercy stood shuddered. She dropped to her hands and knees, crushing the speaking trumpet. She clung to the roof, pinching it by the rim and pulling it up against her body as she shuffled along, trying to reach the nearest ladder.

The Dreadnoughts whistle blew.

It was no code of beeps and chimes, and no warning this time, either. It was a declaration of readiness. Everyone was ready. The moment was approaching, and the narrowest point between the two trains was imminent.

Now or never.

She held her breath and waited.

Now or never.

Now.

A volley of shots rang out as timed as a firing squad. Not the nearest undead, but the remaining corpses that stormed the Shenandoah-these dead men fell to the ground, clearing the way for the Rebels to jump, slide, or climb. Not the sort to look a gift horse in the mouth, they jumped, slid, and climbed down to the snow, and after a moments confused milling, they ran toward the Dreadnought.

Another round, another pounding volley cut through another small clot of the raging dead. Most of their fellows did not seem to notice that anyone living was coming up behind them.

Another round, another pounding volley.

Mercy thought of the British during the Revolution and how theyd lined up in rows, all firing at once, and then replacing one row with another. Thats what it sounded like, just underneath her. And when she looked over the edge, she could see their guns sticking out the windows, all in a row, just as shed imagined. When they fired, it was on someones signal-she could hear the one-word order even over the blustering wind.

Fire!

Another round, another pounding volley, and another cluster of dead men (plus at least one dead woman) fell to the ground. One or two struggled to rise, but were down enough to stay down when the living men ran past.

Mercy counted five. Five souls left, from the entire crew of the Shenandoah, however many that mightve been.

But they looked like five sturdy men. The strongest, always. Who else makes it out alive? No one, of course. None but the men with the thighs that could pump in time with a trains pistons, moving their legs toward the enemy train because it was the only thing that could save them now. They were out of bullets and options and ideas, so here they came-hats flying off heads, jackets flapping behind them, boots weighed down with snow and snowmelt as they pushed through the stuff, which was not knee high but at times drifted up to their shins.

Mercy clung to the roof of the passenger car, peering over the edge and cheering the men on with every breath. She prayed little prayers that puffed out in tiny clouds, all of them whisked away on the wind with the snow and the churned-up bodies of the undead whod stayed on the tracks, charging forward, everyone wanting to catch the train.

Three more volleys, violent rounds of organized fire and gunpowder coughing out the windows, and another hole was blown in the crowd.

Come on . . . , Mercy said under her breath. Then, as one man stumbled, fell, and was shortly covered by the monstrous creatures, she shouted it. Come on! she ordered the remaining four. Come on, goddamn you, come on! Youre almost here!

Her hood was blown back and full of filthy snow, and her hands were absolutely senseless. They couldve frozen to the edge of the roof, for all she knew, and for all she was letting go. She cheered the runners until she was hoarse. At some point, one last gap was blown in the thinning circle of undead, and the four men sprinted through, as red-faced and dirty as the nurse atop the train.

Almost here! she cried.

And they were almost there, yes, coming up to run alongside the train. Winding down, though. All of them, from trudging through the snow. They were weakening. They were so close, and it might not be enough.

Mercy prised her hands off the edge. Scrambling, knees and elbows and hands and boot-toes doing everything possible to hold to the roof, she hauled herself to its edge, just above the gap where one of the Rebels was losing steam, not quite close enough to heave himself on board.

She missed the last three ladder rungs and landed on the platform with a thud. Her knees ached, but her feet couldnt feel the impact, as they were already deadened from the icy air and the freeze-and-refreeze of dampness.

You! she said, as if there were anyone else she might be talking to.

He gasped something in response, but it was unintelligible.

Stay with me! she commanded, and began the process of unbuckling the gunbelt from around her waist. It might work. Then again, it might not. The man alongside the train was a large fellow, brunet and heavyset but not so much fat as beefy. Regardless, he looked heavy.

Sending up a heartfelt prayer for the strength of the leather, she used the belt to lash herself to the platform rail-and she gave off a prayer for the railing, too. Then she ducked around the pole, held on tight with one still-ungloved hand, and held out the other one.

Take my hand!

He replied, Mmmph! as he tried to follow her instructions, flinging himself forward and grabbing, but she remained barely out of reach.

So she lowered herself, sliding down along the pole. She leaned like shed never leaned before, stretching herself out as if she could gain a few inches in height by pure willpower. Her hand trailed farther from the gap, nearer to the man.

It wasnt enough.

But all she had to do was let go with the hand that braced her. Let go of the rail. Gain that extra half a foot.

Yes.

On the count of three! she told him, since that was what worked for everyone else.

He nodded, and beads of sweat on his face went scattering as he jogged forward, still forward, almost spent-she could see it in his eyes.

One . . . two . . . three!

She released the pole and trusted the gunbelt to hold her, and the pole to hold the gunbelt, and the platform to hold the pole. She threw both arms out this time, leaning at her hips and straining. He gave one last surge-probably the last surge that was left in him-and closed the space between them.

Their hands met.

She seized his. He tried to seize back, but there wasnt much strength for him to lend, so she did most of the work.

He stumbled.

She said, God help me! as she pulled him briefly off his feet. Then his knees were coming down against the tracks, and he was hanging in midair-supported just by her and the gunbelt. He was trying to help her help him, but it was hard, and he was almost gone, really. Shed asked too much of him, she could see that now; but she still had something of herself left, so she wrenched him up a joint at a time.

She had him by the wrists, and then the forearms.

Then the elbows.

Then the pole was beginning to bend and her arms were threatening to unhinge from their sockets, and the belt was straining as if the buckles might go at any minute.

The Rebels eyes went wide.

She knew what he was thinking, as plain as if it were written on his forehead. She growled, No. Dont. Dont let go. Hang on.

And then a pair of strong hands was on her shoulder, on both shoulders. Someone was pulling her up, and back, and drawing the Confederate with her.

She didnt fight it, but pushed back into the utilitarian embrace. Soon the arms were around her waist, and then one was loose and reaching over her arms, to the Rebel, who took the hand that was offered him.

In a matter of moments, the three of them were on the platform. The Rebel, lying splayed there, threw up. Mercy, trussed to the bent pole, unbuckled herself with hands that shuddered with exhaustion. Inspector Galeano leaned against the wall of the car, holding his stomach and gasping.

Thank you, she told him.

The Rebel tried to say thank you as well, but instead threw up again.

Mercy asked, You got the rest of them?

He didnt nod, but made a tired shrug and said between gulps of air, Two of them. Another did not reach the train.

The Rebel drew himself up to his quaking, bruised, scraped knees, and using the rail, pulled himself to his feet. He mustered a salute, and the inspector saluted back, parroting the unfamiliar gesture.

Mercy put a hand out and behind the Rebel, who might yet require a bit of steadying, in her professional opinion. But he held himself straight and wiped off his mouth with one sleeve, using the other to wipe his brow and cheeks as he followed the Mexican inspector into the passenger car.

They were greeted by Horatio Korman and Captain MacGruder, who were assisting the other two men whod made it on board.

Lieutenant Hobbes was bent over one of the wounded Union men, offering comfort or bandaging. Mrs. Butterfield had stopped crying, and Miss Clay was still on point at the window nearby. Cole Byron stood by the forward doors, his dark skin shining with perspiration, and another porter crouched just beyond him, repairing a loosened connector. Morris Comstock was on his feet, and, like several of the other soldiers, was still picking off the undead here and there, though they could see fewer and fewer as the train gathered speed.

As the pace improved, the snow blew higher and harder around them, and this, too, helped wash the teeming undead away from the battered train and the passengers within it.

Everything was ice and soot, and gunpowder and snow, and a few dozen heartbeats spread along the trains length. Most of the windows were gone, and the wind blew mercilessly inside, whipping hair into faces and clothing against bones.

For a while, no one spoke. Everyone was afraid to talk until the train was moving determinedly enough and the snowplow was kicking the debris high enough that not even the speediest of the monsters could catch them.

And then, after a few cleared throats, there were words of greeting.

Shortly thereafter, it was learned that Sergeant Elmer Pope, Private Steiner Monroe, and Corporal Warwick Cunningham were now in their midst, and all three men were exceedingly grateful for the assistance. They made no pretense of bluster. When things might have become awkward, given the circumstances, there instead came a moment of great camaraderie when the three Confederate men stood alongside the Union men and everyone looked out the windows at the retreating, ferocious, thinning hordes of the living dead.

The sergeant said, I want you to know, wed have done the same. Shoe being on the other foot, and all. Whether command liked it or not. We wouldve dealt with that later, but we wouldnt have left you.

And Captain MacGruder said, Id hope so. He didnt take his eyes away from the window until Inspector Galeano spoke.

As softly as the atmosphere would allow, the inspector said, Were all together in this. Galeano was a ragged figure, his own uniform singed and seared with gunpowder, and bloodied here and there. His hat was missing and his wild, dark hair was more wild and dark than it should have been, but so was everyone elses. They were northern and southern, Texan and Mexican, colored and white, officers and enlisted fellows . . . and, come to that, men and women. But the snow and the coal-smoke were finished with them now, and the wind had gotten its way. Their eyes were bloodshot and their faces were blanched tight with cold; and they were all bleak inside with the knowledge of something awful.

It was a train full of strangers, and they were all the same.

Inspector Galeano spoke again, and he was hoarse from the blizzard and the shouting. The Spanish consonants were filed sharp in his mouth. He said, There will be questions. From everyone, everywhere. All our nations will want to know what happened here. And we are the only ones who can tell them.

Captain MacGruder nodded. Therell be inquiries, thats for damn sure.

Sergeant Pope said, We were after your gold, and you were after the Chinamen out West. We had a fight between us, fair as can be.

But we wont get our Chinamen now, said the lieutenant. The deeds all went sucking out into the pass someplace when that crazy woman busted out the gold cars window with a prybar. He pointed at Theodora Clay, who stood utterly unapologetic. And the gold . . . I dont know. I expect there are better uses for it.

Corporal Cunningham said, And Lord knows were in no position to take it from you now. He gave a rueful little smile.

We both had our reasons, said the captain. Civilized reasons. Disagreements between men. But those things . . .

Those things was repeated in muttering utterances around the car.

The Southern sergeant said, I want all of yall to know, we didnt do that. Whatever was done to them . . . we didnt do it. Ive never seen anything like it in my life, and I dont mind telling you, I near shit myself when they started eating my soldiers.

Us either, said Lieutenant Hobbes.

And Captain MacGruder clarified, They arent our work either. Ill swear to it on my fathers grave.

General murmurs of agreement and reinforcement made the rounds.

As a representative of the government that once . . . Inspector Galeano sought a word, and didnt find it. So he tried again. Those people-those things that arent people anymore-they were my countrymen. I can assure you that whatever became of them was no work of ours.

The ranger said, Nor Texas, and thats a goddamned fact.

Anyone couldve argued, but nobody did.

But everyones innocence having been established, a great round of speculation got under way. If not the North, and if not the South, and if not Texas or Mexico . . . then who? Or, God help them all, what if it were a disease-and there was no one at fault, and no one they could demand an explanation from?

All the way to Salt Lake City, the passengers and crew of the Dreadnought huddled and whispered, periodically checking themselves in the lavatories for any signs of drying eyes, graying skin, or yellowing membranes.

And no one found any.

So Mercy told them everything she knew about the yellow sap, and Inspector Galeano told them about a northwestern dirigible that had crashed in West Tejas, carrying a load of poisonous gas.


Nineteen | Dreadnought | Twenty-one



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