The Birmingham Belle rolled into Fort Chattanooga as the sun rose over the green-covered Appalachian ridges that welled up around the Tennessee River. The motion of the train must’ve lulled Mercy more than she’d imagined, because she didn’t remember much of the getting there-only the rollicking lurch of the vehicle’s progress, clipping along the rails.
There was a station there-a proper station, with rows of platforms and a caf'e, and porters and patrons and clocks-out on the south side of the city, in the shadow of Lookout Mountain. Mercy lowered her window and leaned her head out to catch the morning air and refresh herself, inasmuch as possible. She smelled soot, and more diesel fuel. She whiffed coal dust, ash, and manure; and over the clatter of the arriving train, she heard the lowing of cattle and the natterings of goats, sheep, and the people who ushered them along.
The Birmingham Belle stopped with an exhausted sigh, seeming to settle on its rails. A few minutes later, the engineer himself drew out the passenger steps and opened the doors to release them.
All of them, from the Zephyr folks to the strangers who’d likewise required evacuation from Cleveland or the railyards, stumbled into the light and blinked against the steam that clouded the platform like battlefield smoke.
The Fort Chattanooga Metropolitan Transit Station looked unaccountably normal.
Laborers moved luggage, supplies, and coal in every direction-some carried right along the platforms, and some pumped by hand-moved carts that clung to the rails, darting between the trains at every switch and junction. Scores of dark-skinned men in red uniforms did most of the toting and directing, guiding the flow of everything that must come and go from a train, including people.
None of them were slaves anymore, and most hadn’t been for years. Like Virginia and North Carolina, Tennessee had ratified an amendment abolishing the practice back in the late 1860s, over the grumbles and general disapproval from the deeper Confederacy. But preaching states’ rights was only talk if a nation wouldn’t uphold its own principles, so these three upper states got their way. Over the next ten years, most of the others followed suit, and now only Mississippi and Alabama held out . . . though there were rumors that even these two bastions of the Peculiar Institution might crack within the next year or two. After all, even South Carolina had caved to English abolitionist pressure in 1872.
Like so many things, in the end it had come down not to a matter of principle, but a matter of practicality. The Union had more warm bodies to throw at a war, and the Confederacy needed to harness a few of its own or, at the very least, quit using them to police its vast legions of imported labor.
It was Florida that first got the idea to offer land grants as added incentive to settle or sign up and fight. Texas caught on shortly thereafter, inviting the former slave population to homestead for almost precisely the same reason as Florida-an enormous Spanish population that had never quite come to terms with its territory loss. Besides, Texas was its own republic, with plenty of farmland available, and its informal allies in the Confederacy had an army to feed. In 1869, the governor of Texas said to a local newspaper, “Looks like easy math to me: We need people to grow food, and we’ve got nothing but room to farm it, so bring in the free blacks and let them break their backs on their own land for a change.”
Florida was already sitting on a large free colored population, mostly courted from the Carolinas by the Catholic missions in the previous century; and besides, Texas was nursing a war on two fronts: against the Union to the northeast (though not, of course, officially) and with growing ranks of dissatisfied Mexican separatists from the south and west. These two states had the most to gain from claiming the ex-slaves as their own, inviting them to make themselves comfortable, and calling them citizens. This was not to say that things were egalitarian and easy for the free blacks, but at least they were employees rather than property throughout much of the CSA these days.
There in Tennessee, a great number of freed slaves had found themselves welcoming their brethren from Alabama (only a few short miles to the south) to a place with few occupations that did not feed the wartime economy. Competition for employment was fierce, even when many jobs were available. So they worked at the train station, and in the factories; they worked on the river, in the shipping districts. There was even one school teaching young negro and mixed men to become mechanics and engineers. The school was rumored to be one of the best in the nation, and there were rumors that once in a blue moon, a white boy would try to sneak in.
One man, a tall colored porter with high cheeks and a crisp Pullman uniform, asked if he could take Mercy’s bag or direct her to a train. His words trailed off when she looked up at him; he saw her smudged skin, filthy hair, and blood-covered clothes.
“I beg your pardon?” she said. Tired, and not even certain what she ought to ask him.
“Do you need any help? Assistance?”
She looked back at the train, a gesture that turned her shoulder and showed her bag.
He noted the cross, and in an effort to gently prompt her, he said, “Back from the front, are you?”
“As it turns out,” she muttered, meeting his eyes again. “I’m . . . I need to . . . I’m on my way to Memphis,” she finally spit out.
“Memphis,” he repeated. “Yes, there are trains going that way-one this evening, departing at seven fifteen, and one much later, at eleven twenty,” he said from memory. “And there’s another at ten seventeen tomorrow morning. If you don’t mind my saying so, I think you ought to consider the morning train.”
“I don’t mind you saying so,” she assured him. “I’ll just . . . I think that’s a good idea. I’ll go head inside, and ask about a room.”
“The transit hotel is all full up at the moment, ma’am. But the St. George Hotel is right across the street. Rooms are reasonable, and there’s board included. Supper and breakfast, at six thirty sharp, both a.m. and p.m.”
“Thank you. For your help,” she told him, though she said it as though she weren’t really awake, and wasn’t really thinking about it. She wandered away from him in the same dazed fashion. Mercy was so tired, she could hardly stand, but “across the street” didn’t sound far. She climbed up and down stairs that took her across platforms and around busy carts and porters and restless passengers. She ignored the stares of the well-dressed folks waiting for their transport, if she even saw them gaping at her; but she tugged her cloak a little tighter, trusting the dark blue to hide more of the dried blood than the beige linen of the apron that covered her brown work dress. If the rest of her was distractingly dirty, then the world would just have to deal with it.
Immediately across the street, as promised, a gray brick building called itself the St. George Hotel. Mercy let herself inside and found a place that wasn’t beautiful, but was spacious-three stories and two wings, with a big lobby that had a bright lamp hanging overhead and a threadbare carpet leading straight up to the front desk. A man there was scribbling something down in a ledger, and he didn’t look up when she approached; he only said, “Need a room?” and tapped the tip of his pen against his tongue to moisten it.
Mercy said, “I do, please.” She retrieved her handbag from inside the satchel, praising Jesus quietly for her habit of keeping it there. It could easily have been lost with the rest of her luggage.
The man looked up at her. He was wearing a headband with a magnifying lens attached to it that hung down over his right eye. His face was shaped like a potato, and was approximately as charming.
“Where’s your husband?”
“Dead, in a field someplace in Georgia,” she answered flatly. “I’m on my own.”
“A woman traveling alone,” he observed, and lifted the edge of his nose in a distasteful sneer. “We don’t cotton to those, too much. Not here. This ain’t that kind of establishment.”
She said, “And I ain’t that kind of client, so we don’t have a problem. I’m a nurse, passing through to Memphis. I’m on my way from the Robertson Hospital in Richmond,” she tried, since that place had opened doors for her before.
“Never heard of it.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake . . .”
“You got any paperwork?”
“Course I do.” She rummaged through the satchel, with its logo that did nothing to melt the heart of the hotelkeeper, and found the letter from Captain Sally. She showed it to him, and he made a show of reading it.
“All right, then, I guess. But you pay up front.”
“Fine.” He counted it, taking his time with every coin and bill. He handed her a key. “Room eleven. First floor. The hallway to your right.”
She forced herself to say, “Thank you,” and went immediately to her room.
The room was bare but clean, with a bed, a dresser, a basin in the corner, and, attached to one wall, a slab of polished tin for a mirror. A note on the back of the door told her where the pump was located, so before she settled in, Mercy went out into the center courtyard to the public pump and filled the basin, then carried it back to her room and pulled off everything except her underclothes.
A slim bar of butter-colored soap rested under the mirror.
She used it to scrub down everything, rinsing the worst of the blood and muck out of her apron, and out of the dress beneath it where it’d soaked through. When she was done, she hung everything up around the room to dry, then dropped herself down onto the bed, which caught her with a puff of cheap, flattened feathers.
By the time she awoke, it was late afternoon, and very, very bright. The mountain’s shadow lay long and sharp across the south side of the city, which churned and rolled with trains from every part of the Confederacy.
Mercy was fiercely hungry. She couldn’t remember when she’d last eaten, except that it must’ve been in Richmond. After reassuming clothes that were mostly dry, if not quite, she went out into the lobby and found a different man behind the counter. The new fellow’s face was shaped more like a radish than a potato, and the pinched expression he wore conveyed nearsightedness more than malice.
“Excuse me,” Mercy asked him. “Could you tell me what time it is?”
“That way, ma’am.” He pointed over her head, and when she followed his finger, she saw an enormous clock. He didn’t try to call out the time, which reinforced her suspicion.
So she said aloud, “Ten minutes until six. I understand there’s a supper included at six thirty?”
“That’s right, ma’am. It’s served in the ballroom, down the west wing. Second door to the left.” He lowered his voice. “But if I were you, ma’am, I’d wait until six thirty on the nose. Mr. and Mrs. Ferson don’t take too kindly to those who ‘vulture,’ as they’re keen to put it.”
“Thank you, then. For that information, I mean. And could I ask you another question?”
“By all means, ma’am.”
“Could you please direct me to a notions store, or a general goods establishment? I’m afraid my-well, most of my luggage was lost, and I’ll need to replace some things.”
He said, “Absolutely. On the next block over, to the left around the corner, you’ll find Halstead’s. If you can’t find everything you need there, I’m certain that a clerk can point you someplace else.”
She thanked him and turned away from the counter, finding her way back out the front door and into the street, where the city looked strangely sharp-filed that way against the long, lingering rays that cut past the mountain and the ridges. Fort Chattanooga was a bustling place, filthy and disorganized. And the fort was furthermore augmented by the addition of city walls where the natural boundaries failed to provide adequate protection against incoming marauders.
Halstead’s was the promised block away.
It had a cut-stone front with the establishment name chiseled therein in roman block letters, and a window with printed script scrawled from corner to corner, detailing the day’s specials.
Mercy pressed the door open and let herself inside.
She found rows of goods precisely ordered and carefully stacked, divided into all the expected categories. She picked up a basket from the door’s entrance and a few of the essentials she’d lost: a comb, some gloves, a bar of soap that wouldn’t make her skin dry and itchy, a toothbrush and some baking soda to mix into a paste, some fabric for sanitary rags, a small sewing kit, a spare pair of stockings, and a handful of other small items that would fit in the large medical satchel-since she didn’t feel the need for another portmanteau and she probably couldn’t afford it, anyway. What she was carrying would have to suffice. If she had enough money left over for new clothes, she’d see about getting some in Tacoma.
After paying the man behind the counter, she returned outside to the busy street with its narrow wooden walkways-or, sometimes, no walkways at all.
When she emerged into the street again, it was almost thoroughly dark, though the sky was still orange around its western edge. Low, tree-smattered mountains, jagged ridges, and the man-made corners of walls had cut off the last of the winter afternoon light, and lamps were coming up everywhere. They popped and fizzed into a white, incandescent glow as a pair of small brown boys in clean gray uniforms took an L-shaped key and removed a panel at the base of the light, then flipped a switch therein. One by one they lit the street this way.
On the nearest corner, a stack of the morning’s leftover newspapers was being gathered up for disposal, and a stand for periodicals was closing up and being disassembled. Mercy approached the newspaper stack and the red-haired teenager who was lifting the remaining bundles onto the waste cart. She asked, “Can I buy one off you?”
He said, “It’s late. May as well wait for the next edition; it’ll come up in a few hours.”
She looked back and forth between him and the round-bellied man who was hefting the magazines and street literature into his cart. Then she asked, “Will you be here in a few hours? It looks like you’re leaving.”
The kid shifted his eyes sideways, and brought them back to her, but he wore them lidded and wary. He told her, “I don’t rightly know. Things are about to get messy, I think.”
“Well, that’s what I heard.”
The fat man on the waste cart caught just enough of this to join the conversation. “Ma’am, I don’t know what you’re doing here-if you missed a train or if you’re just passing through, or whatever reason you’re lingering on the southside all by your lonesome-but wherever you’re going, you might want to head there sooner rather than later.”
“The line,” she guessed.
He nodded. “It’s coming, one way or t’other. Our boys is gonna hole up here, set up the city for siege and response. Don’t you worry, though. They won’t take Chatty down. I think they know it, too. I don’t know what they’s trying to prove by bumping up against us like this, but it’s all right if they want to get theyselves killed.”
“I heard they brought a walker to the fight last night,” Mercy fished.
He snapped, “And we brought ours, and brought theirs down. They think they got a foothold, though, so they sneaking in around Raccoon and lining up behind Signal,” he said, meaning that the Union was creeping around from the mountains to the west and north.
“I heard they took the Dreadnought out of play,” said the boy as he went back to discarding his papers. “I heard they took it back north, or maybe east, to feed another cracker line. Maybe they won’t come no closer, not without their big old engine to beef ’em up.”
She said, “Dreadnought. That’s the engine they used to move the walker, ain’t it?”
The magazine man said, “Yeah, they use it to tote around their biggest war toys.” He sat on the back of the cart, dipping it lower on its axle. “You see, miss, what they done is, they built themselves the biggest, meanest engine they could imagine, and then they trussed it up with enough armor and artillery to be a real war machine. Ready to go from place to place, easy as anything else that rolls along a line.” He made a little gesture, like a man playing with a child’s cars on a carpet railway.
“It’s a monster,” said the boy.
“It’s a fine piece of engineering,” the man countered. “But it’s only an engine-and just one engine, at that. Even if they brought it here, to Fort Chattanooga, and used it to try and rout the lot of us straight back across the Georgia state line, it wouldn’t do no good.”
Mercy asked, “And why is that?”
He pointed a finger at her and said, “Because I don’t give two pebbles of squirrel shit how awesome the Dreadnought is. This-here is the proper rail exchange for everything east of Houston and north of Tallahassee. We got enough engines here to run it out on a rail.” He chuckled at his own joke. “It can’t take on all of us, not all at once. Not here. This-here city is made of rails, miss. It’s made of steel, and coal, and sweat, and no one train is going to come here and change nothing. ’Sides,” he added. “Monster or no, it can’t run across the street, or waltz up a rock wall and bust a line into a mountain.”
“That’s what the walkers are for,” the boy chimed in.
“Yeah, well.” The man spit a gob of tobacco into the street. “They only got a handful of those, and after last night, they’re down one. We got half a dozen, and ours are pushed by Texas crude, not by old-fashioned steam. It’s the way of the future!” he assured Mercy. “This city, right here. This is where the future puts its feet on the ground and starts kicking Yankee ass. Right here,” he emphasized, and waggled his rear end off the edge of the cart. He hit the ground with a whump, and reached for the last pile or two of papers. He pointed his finger back at her one more time and said, “But for now, I think ladies ought to find their way out of the city limits. Things might get worse before they line up again.”
Then he brought the gate up on the cart with a satisfied slam, tipped his hat in salutation, and took the reins of the mule who was hitched up to it, leading the whole setup away.
Mercy wandered back toward the St. George and thanked the man at the desk when he indicated that supper was well under way. She settled for what she found there, then returned to the safety of her room.
Once there, she took inventory of what she had left, stacking her money in discrete piles. “Lord Almighty,” she said aloud. “This is going to be one hell of a mess, Daddy.”
The word startled her. She’d never called her stepfather anything but “Father,” and she could hardly remember Jeremiah Granville Swakhammer, except from her mother’s disappointment. In the years since he’d left them both, she’d heard more about him than she’d ever personally experienced-and what she’d heard had run the gamut, depending on the speaker.
She knew he was a big man, and uncommonly strong, and not terribly well educated-but none too stupid, either. She knew he was funny sometimes. She remembered laughing. Vividly, it hijacked her. Just a flash, a tiny moment of being a child, and seeing something hilarious, coming from her father. The feeling of warmth, the knee-high grass tickling her legs under her dress, and the primroses she’d tied together and stuck in her hair with a bobby pin. He was showing her something, and making a game of it.
But the game eluded her. The memory stayed sharp, but contained few details.
And it wasn’t enough to tell her why she was doing this. Not really.
It’d been a hard enough crawl already, just from Richmond to the bottommost side of Tennessee; and the trip had hardly begun. What on earth was she doing, crossing a whole world by herself to see a man she could barely recall?
“I don’t know,” she said to the small piles of money, and the new stockings and gloves and toiletries laid out across the bed, “I guess now that Phillip’s gone, I just don’t have anywhere to go. Or, at least,” she amended the sentiment with a catch in her throat, “I don’t have anywhere I’ve gotta be.”
She repacked everything, rolling the cloth items tightly and arranging the rest carefully, cramming it all into the medical satchel that she hadn’t let out of her sight since leaving the hospital. Then she went downstairs and left a note asking to be roused for breakfast, and settled down for a badly needed night of sleep.
She dreamed of Phillip’s corpse, friendly and waving a handkerchief from the train platform, seeing her off as she left him for parts unknown. And she awoke in the night with a sob, clutching her chest, her face covered in tears.