A message had come and gone to someone, somewhere, and two more gray-uniformed men came running up to the group, leading a pair of stamping, snorting horses and a cart. The man holding the nearest horse’s lead said to the group, “Everyone on board. Line’s shifting. Everybody’s got to go while the going’s good.”
“Where are we going?” demanded Gordon Rand even as he hastened to follow instructions.
He was helping the elderly woman up the back gate and into the makeshift carriage when the second newcomer replied. “Fort Chattanooga.”
“How far away is that?” he inquired further.
“Better part of thirty miles.”
Larsen exclaimed, “We’re going to ride thirty miles in that?”
And the first man answered, “No, you’re going to ride two miles in this, and then the rail will take you the rest of the way.”
“We’re outside Cleveland? That’s what the captain said,” Mercy said, fishing for confirmation of anything at all.
“That’s right.” The second Reb had hair so dark, it gleamed blue in the light of the lanterns. He gave her a wink and a nod that were meant to be friendly. “But come on, now. Everybody aboard.”
The captain lingered by the Zephyr while the elderly couple settled in. The students climbed over the cart’s edge behind them. “I need to reach a telegraph. I’ll have to tell my dispatcher that the ship is down, and give them coordinates to retrieve it,” the captain said plaintively.
But Mercy saw the artillery flashes and heard the earsplitting pops of gunfire through the trees, and she answered with a guess before anyone else could say it. “There won’t be anything left of her by morning.”
“One bullet,” Gordon Rand said softly from his spot in the cart. “That’s all it’ll take, on her side, with her tanks exposed like that.”
“Damn straight,” said the blond who’d first communicated through the windshield. “All the more reason to hit the road, sooner rather than later. We don’t want to be anywhere near her when she goes up in flames. She’ll take a quarter mile of forest and everything in it.”
Ernie gave a yelp when he was hauled onboard, prompting the dark-haired private-Mercy thought he was a private, anyway-to ask if anyone else was hurt. “Does anyone need any help? Is this everybody?”
“This is everybody,” the captain confirmed. “We weren’t traveling full. And the line wasn’t supposed to move this far south; they told me at Richmond that it hadn’t come this far,” he complained even as he climbed aboard to join the rest of his passengers and crew.
The private reached for the reins and held on to them as he climbed up onto the steering seat. His companion leaped up to take a spot beside him, and with a crack of the reins, the cart was turning around to go back the way it had come. The private continued, raising his voice to make himself heard over the background roar of fighting, “We were holding ’em back real good, up until tonight. We’d cut ’em off from their cracker line, and the Chatty trains were keeping us in food and bullets, while they were running low on both.”
Mercy didn’t see the blond soldier who’d been first on the scene-he had either stayed on the scene or gone in some other direction. The other blond had left the driving to the private, and was scanning the trees with a strange scope layered with special lenses, the nature of which Mercy could only guess.
The captain asked, “Then what happened, man? What turned the tide so fast that the taps couldn’t catch up?”
Over his shoulder, the driver said, “They brought in an engine. That thing tore right through our blockades like they were made of pie dough. Killed a score every half a mile. Eventually we just had to let them have it.”
Mercy said, “An engine? Like a train engine? I don’t understand.”
The blond lowered his scope and said, “The rail lines around here, they run crisscross, all over each other, every which-a-direction. We commandeered the switches and posted up our lads to keep the Yanks’ cracker line squeezed off shut. But then they brought-”
The private interrupted him. “The Dreadnought. That’s what they call it.”
“My CO said he thought the damn thing was back east, over in D.C., watching over the capital after our rally there last month. But no! Those bastards brought that unholy engine all the way out here, and it mowed us right down. They took back their line in under an hour, and now they’re pushing us back. They’re pushing us back good,” he emphasized, and drew the lenses back up to his face. “Veer us left, Mickey,” he said to the driver. “I don’t like the look of the smoke kicking up to the east.”
“We’re going to run out of road.”
“Better that than running into artillery, eh?”
The Zephyr’s copilot was sour looking, squatting next to the captain. He asked, “How do you know it’s artillery? I can’t see a damn thing past the lanterns on the cart.”
The navigator gave the copilot a look like he must be the stupidest man alive and waggled his scope, with its myriad jingling lenses. “They’re the latest thing. They ain’t perfect, but they do all right.” One more glance through the lenses, and he said, “But we gotta get rid of our lights or they’ll spot us over there. Mickey, the lanterns. Kill ’em. Kill all of ’em.”
“Clinton, I swear to God-”
“I’m not asking you a favor, you nitwit, I’m telling you-”
“I’m working on it!” Mickey cut him off. “Who’s holding the other one?”
“I am,” the captain said. “And I’m trimming the wick right now.”
“Not enough,” insisted Clinton. “Turn it off. Damp the whole thing down.”
Mickey’s lantern had already been snuffed, so when the captain reluctantly killed the light he held, the forest swallowed them whole. The horses slowed without being told, whinnying and neighing their displeasure and their nervousness. Mickey told them, “Hush up, you two.” Then, to the people in the back, he said, “Down, all of you. Get as low as you can go. Cover your heads.”
The old man, who had been silent against his wife thus far, instead asked, in a voice far too loud for anyone’s comfort, “Why did it get so dark and quiet?”
Gordon Rand slapped his hand firmly over the old man’s mouth and whispered, “Because none of us want to die. Now contain yourself, sir.”
The old man did not so much contain himself as begin to giggle, but it was a quiet giggle, and no one chided him for it. All of them crouched down low, hunkering as deeply as possible against the floor of the cart as it rattled, jostled, and bounced them along the nearly invisible road between the trees . . . then off to the left where the road was less distinct, and rougher. It was also harder to bear for the folks whose knees, elbows, and ribs battered against the wood-slat bottom.
Nearby, a tree exploded, casting splinters as large as arms and legs through the darkness. The old woman muffled her own scream, and everyone else flattened even lower, as if they could meld themselves with the floor of the cart.
Mickey groaned. When Mercy looked up, she could see something dark and shiny all over his face and side, but he stayed upright and flipped the reins at the horses, yelling “Yah!”
The elderly man, absent Gordon Rand’s hand over his mouth, exclaimed, “I thought we were supposed to be quiet!”
But there was no being quiet anymore; it wouldn’t do any good at this point, and the horses and cart were barreling-kicking back to the main road where travel was faster, if more exposed. Another tree nearby was blown to bits with a sound like the whole world falling down. As the echo of it faded, Mercy’s ears were ringing, and there was a tickle in her nose, of sawdust or vibration, then a knock against her head as a rock in the road launched the cart higher, then dropped it to the ground again with a clap that fractured the back axle.
“Oh, Jesus!” Mercy gasped, not that she thought He might be listening. Beneath her body, she could feel the sway and give and tug of the weakened wheels, and an added quiver to the cart’s retreat.
“Mickey!” Clinton cried.
Mercy looked up just in time to see him wobble back and forth to the rhythm of the fleeing horses, and begin to fall. Clinton grabbed him and jerked him back onto the seat, but couldn’t hold him steady; so the nurse leaped from her crouch and snagged the driver, pulling him back into the cart and right on top of herself, since there was no chance to maneuver him and no steady spot to put him down.
Clinton seized the reins.
With the help of Gordon Rand and the students, Mercy rolled Mickey over and patted him down in the darkness. She could see almost nothing, but she could feel a copious, warm dampness. “Captain!” she said. “Bring that lantern over here!”
“We’re supposed to keep it turned off!”
“Turn it up, just a spark. I need to see. And I don’t think it matters now, nohow.” She took the lantern from his hand and twisted the knob just enough to bring it up to a pale glow, barely enough illumination to help. The light swung wildly back and forth from its wire handle, and the whole scene looked unreal, and hellish, and rattled. “He’s bleeding bad.”
“Not that bad . . . ,” he slurred, and his eyes rolled up in his head.
Black-haired Mickey had lost a chunk of that pretty mane, exposing a slab of meat that Mercy prayed didn’t show any bone, but couldn’t get a stable enough look to see if it went as deep as that. His left ear was gone, and a terrible slash along his jawline showed the white, wet underpinning of his gums.
The Englishman said, “He must’ve gotten hit by a bit of that last tree.”
“Must’ve,” Mercy said. She pulled Mickey’s head into her lap and daubed the wound until it was mostly clean.
Ernie asked, “Can you help him?”
“Not much,” she confessed. “Here, help me get him comfortable.” She adjusted his body so that his oozing head rested against the older woman’s thigh. “Sorry,” she told her. “But I’ve got to get inside my bag. Give me a second.”
The woman might’ve given the nurse a second, but the line wouldn’t.
A cannonball shot across the road in front of them, blasting a straight and charred zone through the woods, across the two wheel ruts, and into the trees on the other side, where something was big enough to stop it. A second followed the first, then a third.
The horses screamed and reared, and Clinton wrestled with the reins, begging them with swears, threats, and promises to calm themselves and for God’s sake, keep pulling. One after another the horses found their feet and lunged, heaving the damaged cart forward again. But the axle was creaking dangerously, and Mickey wouldn’t stop bleeding, and in the empty spaces between the trees, gunfire was whizzing and plunking against trunks.
“We’re too heavy,” the copilot said, and withdrew to the farthest corner, away from the damaged axle. “The cart isn’t going to make it!”
“One more mile!” shouted Clinton. “We’re halfway to the rail lines; it only has to make it one more mile!”
“But it’s not gonna,” Mercy cried.
“Holy Jesus all fired in hell!” Clinton choked, just loudly enough for the nurse to hear him. She looked up to see where he was staring, and glimpsed something enormous moving alongside them, not quite keeping pace but ducking back and forth between the thick trunks of the trees that hid almost everything more than twenty yards away.
“What was that?” she asked loudly, forgetting her manners and her peril long enough to exclaim.
“They didn’t just bring the engine,” Clinton said to her, half over his shoulder while he tried to watch the road. “Those bastards brought a walker!”
Another rock or a pothole sent the cart banging again, then the axle snapped, horrifying the horses and dragging the back end down to the ground, spilling out passengers and cargo alike. Mercy wrapped her torso around Mickey and her arm around the old woman who held him and stayed that way, clinging to a corner under the driver’s seat until the horses were persuaded to quit dragging the dead weight and let the thing haul to a stop.
Half off the road and half on it, the cart was splayed on its side much like the Zephyr had wound up, only open and even more helpless looking.
“Goddammit!” Clinton swore as he climbed down from the cart in a falling, scrambling motion. He then set to work unhitching the horses. A swift hail of bullets burst from the trees. One of the horses was struck in a flank, and when it howled, it sounded like some exotic thing-something from another planet. It flailed upward onto two legs again, injured, but not mortally.
Mercy set to work directing the old couple, who had remained in what was left of the broken cart; and with a grunt she hefted Mickey up and slung him over her shoulder like a sack of feed. He was bigger than her by thirty pounds or more, but she was scared, and mad, and she wasn’t going to leave him. He sagged against her, nothing but weight, and blood soaked down the back of her cloak where his earless scalp bounced against her shoulder blade.
She staggered beneath him and hoisted him out of the cart’s wreckage, where she found one of the students-Dennis-standing in shock, in the middle of the road. “Good God Almighty!” She shoved him with her shoulder. “Get out of the road! Get down, would you? Keep yourself low!”
“I can’t,” he said as if his brain were a thousand miles away from the words. “I can’t find Larsen. I don’t see him. I . . . I have to find him. . . .”
“Find him from the ditch,” she ordered, and shoved him into the trees.
The captain was missing, too, and the copilot was helping with the horses, who were reaching shrieking heights of inconsolability. Robert was on point; he went to the elderly folks and took the woman’s hand to guide them both into some cover, and Ernie popped up from around the cart-looking more battered than even ten minutes previously, but in one piece, for the most part.
Mercy said, “Ernie,” with a hint of a plea, and he joined her, helping to shoulder Mickey. Soon the private hung between them, one arm around each neck, his feet dragging fresh trails into the dirt as they took him off the road.
“Where’s . . . ,” she started to ask, but she wasn’t even sure whom she was asking after. It was dark, and the lanterns were gone-God knew where-so a head count was virtually impossible.
“Larsen!” Dennis hollered.
Mercy snapped out with her free hand and took him by the shoulder. She said, “I’m going to hand Mickey over to you and Ernie right now, and you’re going to help carry him back into the woods. Where’s Mr. Clinton? Mr. Clinton?” she called, using her best and most authoritative patient-managing voice.
“Over here . . .”
He was, in fact, over there-still wrestling with the horses, guiding them off the road and doing his damnedest to assure them that things were all right, or that they were going to be all right, one of these days. “We can’t leave them,” he explained himself. “We can’t leave them here, and Bessie’s not hurt too bad-just winged. We can ride them. A couple of us, at least.”
“Fine,” Mercy told him. She also approved of assisting the horses, but she had bigger problems at the moment. “Which direction is the rail line?”
“West.” He pointed with a flap of his arm that meant barely more than nothing to Mercy.
“All right, west. Do the horses know the way back to the rails?”
“Do they . . . what now?”
“Mr. Clinton!” she hollered at him. “Do the horses know the way back to the rails, or to the front? If I slap one on the ass and tell it to run, will it run toward safety or back to some barn in Nashville?”
“Hell, I don’t know. To the rails, I suppose,” he said. “They’re draft horses, not cavalry. We rolled them in by train. If nothing else, they’ll run away from the line. They ain’t trained for this.”
“Mr. Clinton, you and Dennis here-you sling Mickey over the most able-bodied horse and make a run for it. Mrs. . . . Ma’am”-she turned to the old woman-“I’m sorry to say it, but I never heard your name.”
“Mrs. Henderson. You and Mr. Henderson, then, on the other horse. You think she can carry them?” she asked Clinton.
He nodded and swung the horses around, threading them through the trees and back toward Mercy. “They ain’t got no saddles, though. They were rigged for pulling, not for riding. Ma’am, you and your fellow here, can you ride ’em like this?”
Mrs. Henderson arched an eyebrow and said, “I’ve ridden rougher. Gentlemen, if you could help us mount, I’d be most grateful.”
“Where’s Larsen?” Dennis all but wailed. “I’m supposed to look out for him! Larsen! Larsen, where’d you go?”
Mercy turned around to see Dennis there, standing at the edge of the road like an enormous invitation. She walked up to him, grabbed him by the throat, and pulled him back into the trees and down to a seated position. “You’re going to get yourself killed, you dumb boy!”
On the other side of the road, somewhere thirty or forty yards back, things were going from bad to worse. What had started as intermittent but terrifying artillery had grown louder and more consistent, and there was a bass-line undercurrent to it that promised something even worse. Something impossibly heavy was moving with slow, horrible footsteps, pacing along the lines on the other side. She spotted it here and there, for a moment-then no more.
She forced herself to concentrate on the matters at hand.
One problem at a time. She could fix only one problem at a time.
“Dennis, you listen to me. Get on that horse with Mickey, and hold him steady. Ride west until you hit the rails, and get him to some safety. You can ride a horse, can’t you?”
“No but.” She jammed a finger up to his nose, then turned to Clinton. “Clinton, you’re an able-bodied man and you can walk or run the rest of the way, same as me. Ernie, can you still walk all right?”
“Yes ma’am. It’s just the hand, what’s all tore up.”
“Good. You, me, Clinton, and . . . where’s Mr. Copilot-?”
“His name is Richard Scott, but I don’t see where he’s gone,” Robert interjected.
“Fine. Forget about him, if he’s gonna run off like that. Has anyone seen the captain?”
“I think he fell out when the cart broke,” Ernie said.
“Right. Then. We’re missing Larsen, the captain, and the copilot. The Hendersons are on Bessie.” She waved at Mrs. Henderson, who was tangling her hands in the horse’s mane and holding her husband in front of her. She could barely reach around him, but she nodded grimly. “The Hendersons are riding Bessie, and Dennis will be riding the other horse, with Mickey. Is that everyone?” She began her litany again, pointing at each one in turn. “That leaves me, Ernie, Robert, Mr. Rand, and Clinton to find our own way to the rails, but we can do that, can’t we, gentlemen?”
“Larsen!” Dennis called once more.
This time she smacked him, hard across the face. He held his breath.
She said, “If you open your mouth once more, I’ll slap it clear into next Tuesday. Now hush yourself. I’m going to go find Larsen.”
“I am. You, on the other hand, are heading west, so help me God-if only to get you away from us, because you’re going to get us shot. Clinton, kindly help this fellow get on that horse and then the rest of us can get moving, too.”
Clinton nodded at her like a man who was accustomed to taking orders, then hesitated briefly, because he was not accustomed to taking orders from a woman. Then he realized that he didn’t have any better ideas, so he took Dennis by the arm, led him to the horse, and helped him aboard. The student did not look particularly confident in the absence of a saddle, but he’d make do.
“Don’t you let him fall!” Mercy commanded.
Clinton slapped both horses on the rear, and the beasts took off almost cheerfully, so delighted were they to be leaving the scene. The remaining members of the ragtag party had no time to discuss further strategy. No sooner had the horses disappeared between the trees, headed generally west, than the southern side of the fighting line met them at the road.
The soldiers rushed up with battle cries, leading carts with cannon, and crawling machines that carried antiaircraft guns modified to point lower, as necessary. The crawling machines moved like insects, squirting oil and hissing steam from their joints as they loped forward; and the cannon were no sooner stopped than braced, and pumped, and fired.
On the other side of the road, the northern line was likewise digging in. Soldiers were hollering, and in the light of a dozen simultaneous flashes of gunpowder and shot, Mercy saw a striped flag waving over the trees. She saw it in pieces, cut to rags by shadows and bullets, but flying, and coming closer. All around Mercy, soldiers cast up barricades of wood or wire, and where cannon felled trees, the trees were gathered up-by the men themselves, or with help from the crawling craft, which were equipped with retracting arms that could lift much more than a man.
Some of the soldiers stopped at the strange band of misfits beside the road, but not for long. A wild-eyed infantryman pointed at the ruins of the cart and hollered, “Barricade!”
In thirty seconds, it was hauled out of the road and then was further dissected for dispersing along the line.
Clinton was back in his element, among his fellow soldiers. He took Gordon Rand by the arm, since Gordon seemed the least injured and most stable male civilian present, and said, “Get everyone to the back of the line, and then take them west! I’ve got to get back to my company!”
Everyone was shouting over the ferocious clang of the war, now brought into the woods-which compressed everything, even the sound, even the smell of the sizzling gunpowder. It was like holding a battle inside someone’s living room.
Gordon Rand replied, “I can do that! Which way is west again?”
“That way!” Clinton demonstrated with his now-characteristic lack of precision. “Just get to the back of the line, and ask somebody there! Go! And run like hell! Their walker is getting closer; if ours don’t catch up, we’re all of us fish in a barrel!”
Most of the party took off running behind Rand, but Ernie hesitated. “Nurse?” he said to Mercy, who was looking back down the road, the way they had come.
“We’re still missing the captain, and the copilot, and Larsen.” She looked at Ernie. “I told Dennis I’d try and find him, and I mean to. Go on,” she urged. “I’ll be better off by myself. I can duck and cover, and I’ve got my red cross on.”
She mustered a smile that was not at all happy.
Ernie didn’t return it. He said, “No way, ma’am. I’m staying with you. I’m not leaving a lady alone on a battlefield.”
“You’re not a soldier.”
“Neither are you.”
It was clear that he wouldn’t be moved. Mercy sized that up in a snap; she knew the type-too chivalrous for his own good, and now he felt like he owed her, since she’d done what she could to take care of his hand. Now he was bound to take care of her, too, or else leave the debt to stand. Yes, she knew that kind. Her husband had been that kind, though she didn’t take the time to think about it right then.
“Suit yourself,” she told him. She lifted up her cloak, pulling the hood up over her head and adjusting her satchel so that the red mark stood out prominently. It wasn’t a shield, and it wasn’t magic, but it might keep her from being targeted. Or it might not.
“Behind the barrier-we can’t jump it, not now,” she said. It was amazing, how the thing had gone up while they stood there, piecemeal by rickety piecemeal, made up of logs and metal shards, and strips of things meant to tear human flesh beyond repair. Even if she could’ve fit through it, that would’ve left her in the middle of the worst of the cross fire, and that wouldn’t do. Especially not with Ernie tagging along.
So they wound their way through the soldiers, getting sworn at, shouted at, and shoved toward the safety they didn’t want every step of the way until they’d gone far enough east, away from the relative safety of the rails, that the barricade hadn’t yet found purchase and the road was not quite the highway of bullets that it had become farther up the way.
Mercy dashed into the road, crying out for Larsen-wondering if she’d passed him already in the turmoil, and wondering if he’d even survived falling out of the swiftly moving cart. “Captain? Mr. . . . Mr. Copilot? What was his name again? Scott something? Mr. Scott? Can anyone hear me?”
Probably more than a few people could hear her, but it sounded like the fighting was heating up back where the cart had crashed and been disassembled, and no one was paying any attention to the cloaked nurse and the bandaged dirigible crewman.
“Anyone?” she tried again, and Ernie took up the cry, to as much effect.
Together they tried to skirt the line of trees and keep their heads low as they walked up and down the strip where they concluded the cart had most likely come apart. And finally, off to the side and down a rolling culvert, into a cut in the earth where spring rain had carved a deep V into a hill, they got a response.
“Nurse?” The response was feeble but certain. It called like the men called from the cots, back at the hospital. Nuss?
They scarcely heard it over the battle, and it was all Mercy could do to concentrate on the sound-the one little syllable-over the clash a hundred yards away. The footsteps were still stomping, too, and stomping closer with every few steps; she shuddered to imagine what kind of machine this might be, that walked back and forth along the front and sounded much larger than any gun . . . maybe even larger than the Zephyr itself. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to see it. She only wanted to run, but there came that voice again, not quite crying, but pleading: “Nurse?”
“Over here!” Ernie said. “He’s down here!” And he was already sliding down there, toward the rut in the earth where Larsen had landed.
“I thought it was you,” Larsen said when Mercy reached him. “I thought it must be. Where’s Dennis, is he all right?”
“He’s fine. He’s on his way to the rail lines, where the train’ll pick him up and run him to Fort Chattanooga. We had to make him go, but he went. I told him I’d come looking for you.”
“That’s good.” He closed his eyes a moment, as if concentrating on some distant pain or noise. “I think I’m going to be just fine, too.”
“I think you might be,” she told him, helping him sit up. “Did you just crash here, or roll here? Is anything broken?”
“My foot hurts,” he said. “But it always hurts. My head does, too, but I reckon I’ll live.”
She said, “You’d better. Come on, let me get you up.”
“I remember there was a big snapping sound, and everything came apart. And I was flying. I remember flying, but I don’t recall anything else,” he elaborated while the Mercy and Ernie pulled him upright and to his feet. His cane was long gone, but he waved away their attempts to assist him further. “I can do it. I’ll limp like a three-legged dog, but I can do it.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen the captain, or the copilot, have you?” asked Ernie.
“No, I haven’t. Like I said, I went flying. That’s all.”
“You’re a lucky son of a gun,” Mercy told him.
“I don’t feel real lucky. And what’s that noise?”
“It’s the line. It’s caught up to us. Come on, now. Other side of the road. Get down low, and make a dash for it-as much as you’re able. You landed on the Yankee side, so don’t go thanking your lucky stars quite yet.”
But soon they were ducking and shuffling, flinging themselves across the road and back to gray territory, and not a moment too soon. The barricade-makers were shouting orders back and forth at one another, extending the line, setting up the markers along the road. They ordered Mercy and the men to “Clear the area! Now!”
Larsen yelled back, “We’re civilians!”
“You’re going to be dead civilians if you don’t get away from this road!” Then the speaker stopped himself, getting a good look at Mercy. “Wait a minute. You a nurse?”
“You any good?”
“I’ve saved more men than I’ve killed, if that’s what you want to know.” She helped hoist Larsen down over the drop-off at the road’s edge, leaving herself closer to the dangerous front line. She stared down the asker, daring him to propose one more stupid question before she kicked him into Kansas.
“We got a colonel with a busted-up arm and chest. Our doctor took a bullet up the nose and now we’ve got nobody. The colonel’s a good leader, ma’am. Hell, he’s just a good man, and we’re losing him. Can you help?”
She took a deep breath and sighed it out. “I’ll give it a try. Ernie, you and Larsen-”
“We’ll make for the rails. I’ll help him walk. Good luck to you, ma’am.”
“And to the pair of you, too. You-” She indicated the Reb who’d asked her help. “-take me to this colonel of yours. Let me get a look at him.”
“My name’s Jensen,” he told her on the way between the trees. I hope you can help him. It’s worse for us if we lose him. You, uh . . . you one of ours?”
“One of yours? Sweetheart, I’ve spent the war working at the Robertson Hospital.”
“The Robertson?” Hope pinked his cheeks. Mercy could see the flush rise up, even under the trees, in the dark, with only a sliver of moonlight to tell about it. “That’s a damn fine joint, if you’ll pardon my language.”
“Damn fine indeed, and I don’t give a fistful of horseshit about your language.”
She looked back once to see if Larsen and Ernie were making good progress away from the fighting, but the woods wouldn’t let her see much, and soon the cannon smoke and barricades swallowed the rest of her view.
Jensen towed her through the lines, guiding her around wheeled artillery carts and the amazing crawling transporters. She gave them as wide a berth as she could, since he told her, “Don’t touch them! They’re hot as hell. They’ll take your skin off if you graze them.”
Past both good and poorly regimented lines of soldiers coming, going, and lining up alongside the road they dashed, always back-to the back of the line-following the same path as the wounded, who were either lumbering toward help or being hauled that way on tight cotton stretchers.
Back on the other side of the road, on the other side of the line, she heard a mechanical wail that blasted like a steam whistle for twenty full seconds. It shook the leaves at the top of the trees and gusted through the camp like a storm. Soldiers and officers froze, and shuddered; and then the wail was answered by a returning call from someplace farther away. The second scream was less preternatural, though it made Mercy’s throat cinch up tight.
“It’s only a train, out there,” she breathed.
Jensen heard her. He said, “No. Not only a train. That metal monster they got-it’s talking to the Dreadnought.”
“The metal monster? The . . . the walker? Is that what they called it?” she asked as they resumed their dodging through the chaos of the back line. “One of your fellows told me they have one, but I don’t know what that is.”
“Yeah, that’s it. It’s a machine shaped like a real big man, with a pair of men inside it. They armor the things up and make them as flexible as they can, and once you’re inside it, not even a direct artillery hit-at real close range-will bring you down. The Yanks have got only a couple of them, praise Jesus. They’re expensive to make and power.”
“You sound like a man who’s met one, once or twice.”
“Ma’am, I’m a man who’s helped build one.” He turned to her and flashed a beaming smile that, for just this once, wasn’t even half desperate. And as if it’d heard him, from somewhere behind the Confederate lines a different, equally loud and terrible mechanical scream split the night across the road with a promise and a threat like nothing else on earth.
“We got one, too?” she wheezed, for her breath was running out on her and she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep up this pace.
“Yes ma’am. That-there is what we like to call the Hellbender.”
She saw its head first, looming over the trees like a low gray moon. It swiveled, looking this way and that, the tip of some astounding Goliath made of steel and powered by something that smelled like kerosene and blood, or vinegar. It strode slowly into a small clearing, parting the trees as if they were reeds in a pond, and stood up perfectly straight, before emitting a gurgling howl that answered the mechanized walker on the other side of the road-and sent out a challenge to the terrifying train engine, too.
Mercy froze, spellbound, at the thing’s feet.
It was approximately six or seven times her height-maybe thirty-five or forty feet tall, and as wide around as the cart that had carried her away from the Zephyr. Only very roughly shaped like a man, its head was something like an upturned bucket big enough to hold a horse, with glowing red eyes that cast a beam stronger than a lighthouse lamp. This beam swept the top of the trees. It was searching, hunting.
“Let’s go.” Jensen put himself between her and the mechanized walker, flashing it a giant thumbs-up before leading her toward a set of flapping canvas tents.
But she couldn’t look away.
She couldn’t help but stare at the human-style joints that creaked and bent and sprung, oozing oil or some other industrial lubricant in black trails from each elbow and knee. She had to watch as the gray-skinned thing saw what it was looking for, pointed itself at the road, and marched, spilling puffs of black clouds from its seams. The mechanized walker didn’t march quickly, yet it covered quite a lot of space with each step; and each step rang against the ground like a muffled bell with a clapper as large as a house. It crashed against the ground with its beveled oval feet and began a pace that could best be described as a slow run.
A cheer went up behind the Confederate line as the walker went blazing through it. Everyone got out of the way. Hats were thrown up and salutes were fired off.
Back in the woods, somewhere on the southern line, an explosion sent up a fireball so much bigger than the tree line that, even though it must’ve been a mile away, Mercy could see it, and imagine she felt the heat of it.
Jensen said, “You got here on that dirigible, the one that went down?”
“That’s right,” she told him. “And it just went up in flames, didn’t it?”
“Yup. Hydrogen’ll do that.”
“What about that thing? The Hellbender?”
“What about it?” he asked.
“What does it run on? Not hydrogen?”
He shook his head and then ducked under a tent flap, indicating that she should do likewise. “Hell no. Texas done developed it, so it runs on processed petroleum. Can’t you smell it?”
“I can smell something.”
“Diesel. That’s what they call it, and that’s why our Hellbender’s gonna take down their . . . whatever they call theirs. Theirs just run on steam. They move all right, but they run so hot, they can’t keep pace with ours, not for very long. Not without cooking the men who ride inside ’em.” He paused his exposition to salute a uniformed fellow in the tent’s corner. Then he said, “Chase,” to acknowledge a second man who was sitting on a camp stool beside a cot. “Ma’am, this is George Chase-he’s been looking after the colonel. And there, that’s Colonel Thaddeus Durant. You can see he’s not doing so good.”
“I can see that,” she said, and went immediately to the colonel’s side. She dragged a second camp stool to the cot’s edge and tugged a lantern out of George Chase’s hand.
He gave clear consideration to mounting a protest, but Jensen shushed him by saying, “She’s a nurse from the Robertson joint, George. Dropped right out of the sky, she did. Give her some breathing room.”
George scooted his stool back and said, “I don’t know what to do. I fix machines; I don’t know how to fix things like this!”
She swung the lantern over the pulp of the colonel’s face, neck, shoulder, and ribs, and guessed that he’d taken a close proximal blast of grapeshot, or something messier. Peeling back the blanket they’d thrown across him, she followed the damage like it was a trail marked out on a map. The blanket stuck to him where the makeshift bandages had bled clean through. Everything was beginning to dry to a sticky, wet paste of cotton, wool, and shredded flesh.
“Gentlemen, I’m not entirely sure what to tell you-”
“Tell us you can save him!” George Chase begged.
She wouldn’t tell them that. Instead she said, “I need all the clean rags you can get your hands on, and your doctor’s medical bag if you can scare it up for me. Then I’m going to need a big pot of clean water, and if you find some that’s good and hot, so much the better.”
“Yes ma’am.” George saluted her out of habit or relief on his way out of the tent, thrilled to have been given a task.
The uniformed officer fretted in place, looming beside Jensen. He said, “There’s nothing to be done for him, is there?”
She said, “Maybe if I clean him up, I’ll get an idea of how bad it is.” But she meant, No.
“He’s going to die, isn’t he?”
Jensen clapped the other man in the side and said, “Don’t you put it like that! Don’t talk about him like that, he’s right here and he can hear you. He’s going to be all right. Just damn fine, is how he’s going to be.”
Mercy very seriously doubted that the colonel could hear anything, much less any studied critique of his likely survival. But when the requested items arrived, she dived into exploratory cleansing, peeling away the layers of clotted fabric and gore as gently as possible to get at the meat underneath. She soaked the rags and dabbed them against the colonel’s filthy skin, and he moaned.
It startled her. She’d honestly thought he was too far gone for pain or response.
Inside the doctor’s bag, she found some ether in a bottle, as well as needles and thread, some poorly marked vials, tweezers, scissors, syringes, and other things of varying usefulness, including another fat roll of bandages. She whipped these out and unrolled them, saying, “The first thing is, you’ve got to stop his bleeding. The rest of this . . . goddamn, boys. There’s not enough skin to stitch through here, or here-” She indicated the massive patches where his flesh had been blasted away. “You need to get him out of this field. Ship him up to Robertson, if you think you can get him that far. But right here, right now . . .”
She did not say that she did not think he’d ever survive long enough to make it to the nearest hospital, or that any further effort was damn near futile. She couldn’t say it. She couldn’t do that to them.
Instead she sighed, shook her head, and said, “Mr. Chase, I’m going to need you to hold this lantern for me. Hold it up so I can see.”
She retrieved the dead doctor’s tweezers.
“What are you going to do?”
“The poor bastard’s got so much scrap and shot in him, it’s probably added ten pounds. I’m going to pick out what I can, before he wakes up and objects. I need you to help me out with this water.”
“What do I do?”
“Take this rag with your free hand, here. Dunk it and get it good and wet. Now. Wherever I point, that’s where I want you to squeeze the water out to clear the blood away, so I can see. You understand?”
“I understand,” he said without sounding one bit happy about it.
Outside, somewhere beyond the small dark tent, two enormous things collided with a crash that outdid all the artillery. Mercy could picture them, two great automatons made for war, waging war against each other because nothing else on earth could stop either one of them.
She forced herself to focus on the shrapnel that came out of the colonel in shards, chunks, and flecks. There was no tin pan handy, so she dropped the bloody scraps down to the dirt beside her feet, directing George Chase to aim the light over here, please, or no-farther that way. Occasionally the colonel would whimper in his sleep, even as numb with unconsciousness as he was. Mercy had kept the ether bottle handy just in case, but he never awakened enough to require it. Still she tweezed, pricked, pulled, and tugged the metal from his neck and shoulder. Nothing short of a miracle held his major arteries intact.
An explosion shook the tent, illuminating it from outside, as if the sun were high instead of the moon. Mercy cringed and waited for the percussion to pass, waited for her ears to pop and her hands to stop shaking.
Down, then. Down his shoulder, to his chest and his ribs.
Never mind what’s happening outside, on the other side of a cotton tent that wouldn’t stop a good thunderstorm, much less a hail of bullets-and the bullets were raining sideways, from every direction. Men were yelling and orders were flying. Perhaps a quarter of a mile away, two monstrous machines grappled with each other for their lives, and for the lives of their nations. Mercy could hear it-and it was amazing, and horrifying, and a million other things that she could not process, not while she had this piece of bleeding meat soaking through his cot. Somehow over the din she detected a soft, rhythmic splashing, and realized that his blood had finally pooled straight through the spot where he slept, and it was dribbling down on her shoes.
She did not say, He’ll never make it. All of this is for show. He’ll be dead by morning. But the longer she kept herself from saying it, the less inclined she was to think it-and the more focused she became on the task at hand, and her borrowed tweezers, and the quivering raw steak beneath her fingers.
When she’d removed everything that could reasonably be removed (which probably left half as much again buried down in the muscles, somewhere), she dried him and wrapped him from head to torso in the doctor’s last clean bandages, and showed George Chase how to use the opium powders and tinctures that the good doctor had left behind.
As far as Mercy could tell, the colonel had stopped bleeding-either because he’d run out of blood, or because he was beginning to stabilize. Either way, there wasn’t much else she could do, and she told George so. Then she said, “Now, you’ve got to keep him clean and comfortable, and make him take as much water as he’ll swallow. He’s going to need all the water you can get inside him.”
George nodded intensely, with such earnest vigor that Mercy figured he’d be taking notes if he’d had a pencil present.
Finally, she said, “I wish him and you the very best, but I can’t stay here. I was on my way to Fort Chattanooga when my dirigible . . . well, it didn’t precisely crash.”
“How does a dirigible not precisely crash?” he asked.
“Let’s just say that it landed unwillingly, and well ahead of schedule.”
“Ah. Hmm.” He pulled his small wire-rimmed glasses off his nose and wiped at them with the tail of his shirt, which probably didn’t clean them any. But when he replaced them, he said, “You’ll need to catch the rails, over in Cleveland. We’re not far. Probably not a mile.”
“Can you point me that way? I’ve got a pretty good sense of direction; I can walk a straight line, even in the middle of the night, if I can trouble you for one of your lanterns.”
George Case looked aghast. “Ma’am, we certainly can’t allow anything like that! I wish you could stay and lend us a hand, but we’ve already sent for another surgeon and he’ll be here within the night. I’ll call back Jensen, or somebody else. We’ll get you a horse, and a guard.”
“I don’t need a guard. I’m not entirely sure I need a horse.”
He waved his hand; it flapped like a bird’s wing as he rose and went to the tent’s panel, pushing it open. “We’ll see you to the rail yards, ma’am. We’ll send you there with our thanks for your time and ministrations.”
She was too tired to argue, so she just pushed her camp stool back away from the cot and cracked her fingers. “As you like,” she said.
As he liked, two horses were swiftly saddled. Jensen rode one while Mercy rode the other, away from the camp and into the trees once more, between the trunks, between the bullets that sometimes whipped loosely past, having flown too far to do much but plunk against the wood. The roar of battle was still loud, but fading into the background. She could see, in hints and flashes, the two giant monsters wrestling, falling, and swinging.
She drew her cloak up over her head and gripped the reins with hands that still had dried blood smeared into the creases. Her luggage was long gone-lost with the cart, and the people who were lost with it-and she could mourn for it later, but her professional bag with its crimson cross stitched boldly on the side banged against her rib cage, where it was firmly slung across her chest.
The rail yard was not the same as a station; there was no major interchange, but several smaller buildings planted amid the maze of tracks. One of them had a little platform, and on this platform huddled a dozen people, milling about together and tapping their feet.
Jensen led her over a walkway that crossed four rows of tracks and went around three giant engines with boilers clacking themselves cool. He paused to dismount at the platform’s edge. By the time he’d reached the reins of Mercy’s horse, she’d already climbed down without assistance.
Someone on the platform called her name, and she recognized Gordon Rand, who looked delighted to see her. The other known survivors of the Zephyr were there also, having waited the better part of the night for the train that presently pulled in with a raucous halt, spraying steam in all directions, covering the stragglers on the platform in a warm cloud of it. The horses stamped unhappily, but Jensen held their reins firmly and said to Mercy, “Ma’am. George said you were headed for Fort Chattanooga, and it looks like you’re traveling alone.” The horse took half a step forward and backward, shuffling to keep from stepping off the walkway and onto a narrow metal rail.
“Both of them things are true,” she admitted.
“You’re all by yourself, headed west from Richmond?”
“My husband died. In the war. I just learned a week ago, and now I’m going home to my daddy’s.” She did not add that her trip was going to take her another couple thousand miles west of Fort Chattanooga, because she had a feeling she knew where this conversation was going.
She wasn’t perfectly correct. Jensen-and whether that was his first name or last, she’d never asked and would never know-pulled a small cotton satchel off his chest and handed it to her. “George thought maybe you ought to take these with you. They belonged to the doctor, who was a Texan by birth, and he traveled like it.”
She took the satchel and peered inside. The light from the platform’s lamps cast a yellow white square down into the khaki bag, revealing a gunbelt loaded with a pair of six-shooters, and several boxes of bullets. Mercy said, “I don’t know what to say.”
“You ever fire a gun before?”
“Course I have. I grew up on a farm. But these are awful nice.” She looked up at him, and back at the guns. “These must be worth a lot of money.”
Jensen ran a hand through his hair, shifted, and shrugged. “I reckon they probably are. He was a good doctor, and he’d made good money before joining us out in the fronts. But our colonel is a good man, too, and he’s worth more to us than these guns. The doc won’t be needing them anymore, anyway. George just thought . . . and I thought so, too . . . that you ought to take them.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“You didn’t have to stop and pick all that iron out of poor Colonel Durant. So you take these, and we’ll call it even. So long as you take care of yourself, and have a safe trip to Fort Chattanooga.” He touched the front of his hat with a polite little bow and swung himself back up over his horse’s back. Still holding the reins of the one who’d toted Mercy, he gave his beast a tap with his heel and rode back over the tracks, back to the trees, and back to the front.
A large, nervous man in an engineer’s uniform and cap ushered everyone on board the train-a lean vehicle for all its size, identified by gold-painted script that said Birmingham Belle. It towed only two cars. One was heaped with coal, and the other was a passenger car that had seen better days, and had clearly been scared up for the occasion at the very last moment.
“Everyone on board, please. Quickly-we need to leave the yards. Let’s get all of you to town before we’re closed off for good.”
Mercy didn’t know what he meant by that, so when she finally hauled herself up the steps-the very last of the passengers being evacuated-she asked. “What could close off the yard?”
“Ma’am, please move along,” he said stiffly.
But she didn’t move from the top step.
He looked her up and down, this woman covered with someone’s blood, smudged with gunpowder from hair to gore-flecked boots, and thought it might be less trouble to tell her than to fight with her. So he said, “Ma’am, the rail junction was sewed up tight till the Dreadnought came through, carrying that mechanized walker up to the line. And they didn’t recall that miserable machine back to Washington-it’s still here, crawling the tracks. Prowling around, tearing up everything it meets. So we’ve got to get out of its way.”
“It’s coming here? Now? For us?”
“We don’t know!” He sounded almost frantic. “Please, ma’am. Just get aboard so we can fire up the engine and take you someplace safe.”
She allowed herself to be ushered into the car and down to a seat that was really just a bench bolted into the floor. Her head fell slowly against the window. She didn’t sleep, but she breathed deeply and crushed her eyes shut when someplace, far too close, a train whistle pierced the coming dawn.