Boneshaker 20

Page 20


  The nearest support beam splintered, crumbled, and fell… and the earth and brick wall came tumbling down behind it.

  The cave-in spread for yards in each direction, but Rudy was already on his feet and using his cane to drag himself forward. Zeke clung to the man’s coat and followed blindly toward the next light up ahead—the next patch where the lavender glass let the sky glow underground.

  They scrambled and scuttled forward, and the ceiling sank behind them, putting half an acre of dirt and stone between them and the woman who’d hollered from inside the darkness as black as a grave.

  “But we just came this way!” Zeke protested as Rudy hauled him onward.

  “Well, now we can’t go the other way, so we’ll backtrack and drop back down. It’s fine. Just come on. ”

  “Who was that?” he asked breathlessly. “Was she really a princess?” Then, with a note of honest confusion he augmented the question. “Was she really a ‘she’? She sounded like a man. Kind of. ”

  “She’s old,” Rudy told him, slowing his pace as he checked over his shoulder and saw only the blockage behind them. “She’s old as the hills, mean as a badger, and ugly as homemade sin. ”

  He paused beneath the next patch of purple sky and examined himself, and it was then that Zeke saw all the blood. “Did she get you?” he asked. It was a stupid question and he knew it.

  “Yes, she got me. ”

  “Where’s the knife?” Zeke wanted to know. He stared at the gruesome slit cut into the shoulder of Rudy’s coat.

  “I pulled it out, back there. ” He reached into his pocket and removed the weapon. It was sharp, and flush with gore. “No sense in throwing it away. I figure if she tosses it at me, and I catch it, it’s mine to keep. ”

  Zeke agreed. “Sure. Are you all right? And where are we going now?”

  “I’ll live. We’re taking that tunnel over there. ” Rudy pointed. “We came out that one, on our way. The princess has screwed up our course, but we’ll do all right going this way. I just wanted to avoid the Chinamen if I could help it, that’s all. ”

  The boy had so many questions, he couldn’t decide which one to queue up first. He started with his original one, “Who was that lady? Was she really a princess?”

  Rudy grudgingly answered, “She’s no lady; she’s a woman. And I guess she’s a princess, if you think the natives have any claim to royalty. ”

  “She’s an Indian princess?”

  “She’s an Indian princess same as I’m a well-respected, highly decorated lieutenant. Which is to say, she could make a case for it… but at the end of the day, sheain’t. ” He poked at his shoulder and grimaced—with anger more than pain, Zeke thought.

  “You’re a lieutenant? For what army?” he asked.

  “Guess. ”

  At the next interlude of light, Zeke stared hard at Rudy’s clothes and again noted the dark blue fossils of a uniform. “Union, I guess. What with the blue and all. And you don’t sound like no Southern man I’ve ever heard, anyway. ”

  “Well, there you go,” he said idly.

  “But you don’t fight with them no more?”

  “No, I don’t. I think they took plenty out of my hide before spitting me out. How do you think I got the limp? Why do you think I walk with the cane?”

  Zeke shrugged and said, “Because you don’t want to look like you’re armed, but you want to be able to shoot people anyway?”

  “Very funny,” he said, and he actually sounded like he might be smiling. After a pause that implied he’d given Zeke all the reaction he was planning, he continued. “I took some cannon shrapnel to my backside at Manassas. Tore up my hip but good. They let me go, and I never looked back. ”

  But Zeke was remembering what Angeline had called him, and he pressed the subject. “Then why did that lady call you a deserter? Did you really desert?”

  “That woman is a lying whore and a killer, too. She’s as crazy as can be, and she has some weird feud going on with a man I sometimes work for. She wants to kill him, but she can’t, and it makes her mad. So she takes it out on the rest of us. ” He reached into a nook on the wall and pulled out a candle, then struck a match and explained, “No skylights down this one, not for a bit. We don’t need much light, but we’ll need a little. ”

  “What was it like?” Zeke asked, changing the subject as much as he was willing to. “Fighting in the war, I mean?”

  He grumbled, “It was war, you dumb kid. Everybody I liked got killed, and most of the folks I’d just as soon have shot made it out with medals on their chests. It wasn’t fair and it sure as hell wasn’t any fun. And Jesus knows it’s been going on way too long. ”

  “Everybody says it can’t last much longer. ” Zeke parroted something he’d heard someplace else. “England is talking about pulling its troops out of the South. They might’ve broke the blockade a long time ago, but—”

  “But it’s coming back, a little bit at a time,” Rudy agreed. “The North is choking them slow, and it’s harder on everybody this way. I’ve got a lot of wishes about it, but you know what they say. ‘If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride. ’”

  Zeke looked confused. “I’ve never heard that before in my life, and I’m not sure I even know what it means. ”

  “It means that you could spit in one hand and wish in the other, and we all know which hand’ll fill up quicker. ”

  He took the candle and held it high, almost high enough to char the wood-beam ceiling above them. All around them the world was wet and bleak. Above them, feet were randomly running here and there, or nowhere in particular. Zeke wondered about the feet, and if they belonged to rotters or to other people, but Rudy didn’t seem to know—or if he did, he didn’t want to talk about it.

  Instead he continued talking about the war. He said, “What I’m saying is, if that general of theirs, that Jackson fellow, had died at Chancellorsville like they thought he was going to—then that would’ve taken a few years off this thing, and the South would’ve gone down to its knees that much sooner. But he recovered after all, and he’s kept them in the game on that front. That bastard might be blind in one eye, missing an arm, and too scarred-up to recognize on the street, but he’s a mean tactical man. I’ll give credit where it’s due. ”

  He took another turn, this one to the left, and up. A short stack of steps led into another, more finished tunnel—one with skylights, which prompted him to blow out his candle and stash it against the wall. He continued, “And then, of course, if we’d managed to pull that first cross-country railroad up to Tacoma instead of letting it take the southern route, they wouldn’t have had such a good transportation system, and that would’ve knocked another few years off the time they could hold on. ”

  The boy nodded and said, “All right, I get it. ”

  “Good, because what I’m trying to tell you is, there are reasons the war has lasted as long as it has, and most of those reasons have got nothing to do with how hard the South’s been fighting. It’s been chance, and circumstance. The fact is, the North has a whole lot more people to throw at the fighting, and that’s all there is to it. One day, and maybe one day soon, we’ll see an end to it. ”

  After a pause, Zeke said, “I hope so. ”

  “Why’s that?”

  “My mother wants to go east. She thinks it’ll be easier for us, once the war’s over. Easier for us there than here, anyway. ” He kicked at a stray crumb of brick and shifted his shoulders underneath his bag. “Living out here is… I don’t know. It ain’t good. It can’t be too much worse than someplace else. ”

  Rudy didn’t answer right away. But then he said, “I can see why it might be hard for you, and for her, sure. And I’ve got to wonder how come she didn’t take you away when you were smaller. Now you’re nearly a man, and you’ll be able to leave on your own if it comes to that. I’m almost surprised you haven’t taken off to try your hand at soldiering. ”<
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  Zeke shuffled his feet, and then picked up a steadier pace as Rudy sped up to climb an uncomfortable grade. “I’ve thought about it,” he admitted. “But… but I don’t know how to get back east, and even if I did manage to catch a dirigible or get on board a supply train, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself once I got there. And besides…”

  “Besides?” Rudy glanced back at him.

  “Besides, I wouldn’t do that to her. She’s sometimes… she’s sometimes a little mad and sometimes she’s real closemouthed, but she does the best she can. She’s tried real hard to do right by me, and she works real hard to keep us both fed. That’s why I got to hurry this up. I’ve got to find what I came for and get the hell out of here. ”

  Up ahead, Zeke thought he could hear the chattering patter of conversation—but it was too far away to make any sense to him. “What’s that?” he asked. “Who’s talking? Should we be quiet now?”

  “We should always be quiet,” Rudy said. “But, yeah. Those are Chinamen. We’ll avoid them if we can. ”

  “And if we can’t?”

  Rudy’s only answer was to start reloading as he limped along. Once he’d locked his weapon into position, he switched back to using it as a cane. He said, “You hear that, up there? That whooshing noise, like a big gust of wind coming and going?”

  “I sure do. ”

  “Those are the furnace rooms and the bellows. The Chinamen work them; they’re the ones who keep the air down here good and clean, as far as it ever gets good and clean. They pump it down here from up top, by these big ol’ tubes they made. It’s loud, hot, and dirty, but they keep it up anyway, Christ knows why. ”