Scott's squinting gaze followed the bright arching paths of artillery fire careening across the valley.
“Ho-ho, Lancer! They caught Little Phil with his pants around his ankles today!”
“He prefers Fightin’ Phil, George. And get your noggin down before it gets blown off.”
“I fear it’s too late to honor your request, sir. Too goddamn LATE!”
Scott turned through molasses air toward the headless figure sitting next to him. Instead of releasing the scream inside his brain, a reasonable query took its place. “How are you speaking, George? I mean, considering the circumstances.”
Before an answer could be given, the Pullman porter, blood still visible on his white uniform jacket, interrupted. “Madame Tillie lost her tassel and jumped the tracks. You best follow me, gentlemen.”
George, still requiring a noggin, rose to leave. “By God, Lancer, you’ll be traveling to hell and back when old Harlan catches wind about this latest shenanigan.”
Another flash. Not artillery this time, but a lightning bolt from the tune caller on Mt. Olympus.
Come home, son.
Out of the nightmare’s dark depths, Scott woke with a startled gulp of air. The scene below, lit by smoky salmon daybreak, nudged his brain back into reality. Even though exhaustion had allowed the support of a tree trunk to briefly suffice for repose, it had fallen short on encouraging a sensible dream. Rubbing the back of his neck, Scott spied Seth in a similar position, his arm around a sleeping Kinsey at his side.
Standing upright took a bit of doing. Scott’s muscles, which adrenaline had earlier pushed beyond their limits, now protested as he stiffly walked over to Westcott, who donned his own look of foggy realization.
“I’ll head back down and see what’s left of our belongings. Hopefully, a pair of shoes for the young lady.” Scott nodded in consensus to Seth’s Doubting Thomas dip of the brow. “Yes, I know. Ashes at best.” A finger pointed down at his little cousin. “Make sure she stays put.”
“Goes without saying.” A concerning grin pulled at the corners of Westcott’s mouth. “Although the return of her familiar sassy nature would be welcomed.”
“Agreed.” Scott allowed a moment of humor to ease his own worry over Kinsey’s quiet withdrawal. “Sternly count to ten if you have to. That usually works and you need the practice.”
Scott picked his way back down the ridge. Smoldering embers still emitting a degree of heat greeted him and other travelers who had survived the final minutes of Jupiter’s excursion to Boston.
The survivors. While some wandered about in a fog of confusion, several had taken charge to address the aftermath. One older man caught Scott’s attention. It seemed no matter how much time passed, military officers never lost an identifiable cadence when barking out orders. This man possessed that attribute as he organized assistance for the injured.
“Sir.” Scott presented himself. “How can I help?”
An eyeball of scrutiny delivered a question to the question. “Patch up any wounded while in the field, son?”
Evidently, an ingrained military stance also remained identifiable. “Limited experience but willing to do what I can.” Scott extended his hand. “Lancer. 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry.”
“Schaffer's Battery, Pennsylvania.” The introduction accompanied a firm handshake. “The name’s Gibbens.” Released, the hand took on the role of a pointer. “Setting up a medical tent of sorts over yonder. If a person’s breathing, get ‘em there any way you can. If the soul has passed, leave ‘em. The good Lord will keep ‘em company until we get back around.”
As morning light grew brighter, Scott shuttled back and forth between the wreckage and a makeshift field station, guiding the passengers who could walk and carrying those who couldn’t. Also maneuvering around wood and metal were diligent scavengers, mostly women, forming piles of blankets, clothes, shoes - whatever hadn’t gone up in flames and could be redistributed to those without. Even bottles of whiskey had survived. Snagging a few, Scott delivered the alcohol to where the more severely injured were being treated. Sedation or sterilization: either way, the libation would be put to good use.
Approaching the first doctor, Scott handed over a bottle. “I thought you might need this.”
The gentleman, cutting away charred clothing from an unconscious fella, set down his knife, removed the whiskey’s cork and took a substantial swig. “Thank you. I’ll save some for this poor sonofabitch if he wakes up.”
Raising an eyebrow at the man’s bedside manner, Scott’s curiosity surfaced. “You're a surgeon?”
“Butcher. On my way to Chicago’s slaughterhouses. Some bastard came through here asking who’s good with a blade. I was stupid enough to raise my hand.” The impromptu physician thoughtfully pondered his patient. “Hell, I guess there isn’t much difference between the two professions when you think about it.”
Walking away, Scott swore the minute he arrived back in Green River he’d buy Sam Jenkins a drink, complemented with a slice of Widow Patterson’s apple pie.
Morning crossed over to noon. While aiding the injured lessened, those in the company of the Good Lord increased. Scott joined a crew of men and began moving bodies, some burned beyond recognition, to a discreet area away from the wreck. As the sun grew warmer, bandanas were handed out. Work continued with noses and mouths covered, allowing only the sadness in the men’s eyes to be seen.
“Wait. Let me get a hold on the legs.”
Struggling to remove a casualty from an entanglement of splintered boards and iron, Scott looked into familiar eyes which matched the muffled voice.
Hands leveraged under the victim’s armpits. “Where’s Kinsey?”
“She said I was pacing around like a caged animal and sent me to help you. LIFT.”
Even though grateful for Seth's assistance, worry allowed irritation to dust Scott’s tone. “Did you make it clear she knows not to come down here?”
Strain from carrying dead weight clenched Westcott’s jaw as he responded. “Yes. Told her if she moved an inch I wouldn’t give her the luxury of a ten count before taking her over my knee.” Reaching their destination, Seth lowered the body in time with Scott. “Jesus. Look who this is.”
A hard stare at the bloodied face revealed it belonged to the gentleman from the smoking car who had left in disgust. “Goddammit!” If their rowdiness hadn’t woken him... Scott’s funneled frustration picked up a rock and threw it.
“Let’s say we get back to the little lady before she figures out my threat of retribution was a bluff.”
“Right.” Scott offered the dead man a mental apology for helping fate, in Johnny’s words, deal your sorry soul some bad cards. “I know where we might find her shoes.”
Word of mouth had begun to carry good news at the gathered piles of salvageable items Scott had spied earlier. Auburn laid twenty miles up the line. Most felt Jupiter’s violent explosion would have woken any of the town’s light sleepers. A rescue party was no doubt headed their way this very minute, inspiring several men to walk the track and greet them.
Seth raised a brow. “What do you think? Help’s coming?”
“Plausible.” Scott selected a pair of boots for Kinsey. “Too big, but no heels.” His gaze drifted in the direction of Auburn. “In case there’s some hiking in our future.”
Scott found Kinsey perched on an outcrop of rocks, motionless while watching movement below. She’d wandered far enough to prove she could, but not test Seth’s ability to count to ten. Obviously, the sassy nature was slowly returning. Good sign.
“Put these on before you have a misstep. Medical expertise is in question at the moment.”
“Won’t the gentleman be needing these?”
Kinsey called her little white lies Statements of Convenience. Scott made clear from day one he wouldn’t tolerate her reasoning with lying, but now relied on the practice just this once. “The man insisted I take his extra pair. He said it would be an honor for them to assist a young lady in her journey.” He slipped the boots on his cousin’s feet before she could protest.
“They’ll be worried about us.”
Scott reexamined the photograph of Jupiter’s wreck which screamed the headline Death on the Rails. No doubt the bad news had traveled the wires and landed on Jenkins’ desk by now. Knowing Kinsey had informed the publisher of their travel plans, it didn’t take a stretch of the imagination to picture Will riding out to the ranch bearing the bad news. Torn on whether to stay at Lancer and wait for word or go to Stockton, Scott couldn’t decide which way his father would lean. Johnny, on the other hand, was easy. His younger brother would be standing at the train station demanding answers.
A past headmaster and his often-used quote came to mind. Scott heard it each time he was summoned to the man’s study for an indiscretion.
“Do you know what travels faster than the speed of light, young man? Bad news. Your grandfather will be here shortly.”
Also demanding answers: Harlan Garrett. No second-guessing there. Pinkerton agents were en route.
“How’s the coffee?” Seth pulled up a chair.
“A day old, like this newspaper.”
“Well, I can’t fix old coffee, but I can fix old news.”
The morning edition of The Placer Herald slid across the table.