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   Chapter 68 BY THE DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 9687

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Luck loves to go in mask. It turned out quite as well, after all, that for two days, by kind conspiracy of Constance and Miranda, the boat trip was delayed. In that time no fleet came.

Here at the head of her lovely bay tremblingly waited Mobile, never before so empty of men, so full of women and children. Southward, from two to four leagues apart, ran the sun-beaten, breezy margins of snow-white sand-hills evergreen with weird starveling pines, dotted with pretty summer homes and light steamer-piers. Here on the Eastern Shore were the hotels: "Howard's," "Short's," "Montrose," "Battle's Wharf" and Point Clear, where summer society had been wont to resort all the way from beloved New Orleans. Here, from Point Clear, the bay, broadening south-westward, doubled its width, and here, by and by, this eastern shore-line suddenly became its southern by returning straight westward in a long slim stretch of dazzling green-and-white dunes, and shut its waters from the Gulf of Mexico except for a short "pass" of a few hundred yards width and for some three miles of shoal water between the pass and Dauphin Island; and there on that wild sea-wall's end--Mobile Point--a dozen leagues due south from the town--sat Fort Morgan, keeping this gate, the port's main ship-channel. Here, north-west from Morgan, beyond this main entrance and the league of impassable shoals, Fort Gaines guarded Pelican Channel, while a mile further townward Fort Powell held Grant's Pass into and out of Mississippi Sound, and here along the west side, out from Mobile, down the magnolia-shaded Bay Shell Road and the bark road below it, Kincaid's Battery and the last thousand "reserves" the town's fighting blood could drip--whole platoons of them mere boys--had marched, these two days, to Forts Powell and Gaines.

All this the Callenders took in with the mind's eye as they bent over a candle-lighted map, while aware by telegraph that behind Gaines, westward on Dauphin Island, blue troops from New Orleans had landed and were then night-marching upon the fort in a black rainstorm. Furthest down yonder, under Morgan's hundred and fifteen great guns, as Anna pointed out, in a hidden east-and-west double row athwart the main channel, leaving room only for blockade-runners, were the torpedoes, nearly seventy of them. And, lastly, just under Morgan's north side, close on the channel's eastern edge, rode, with her three small gunboats, the Tennessee, ugly to look at but worse to meet, waiting, watching, as up here in Fort Powell, smiling at the scurviness of their assignment, watched and waited Kincaid's Battery.

Upstairs the new Steve gently wailed.

"Let me!" cried Anna, and ran.

Constance drew out Mandeville's newspaper. Miranda smiled despairingly.

"I wish, now," sighed the sister, "we'd shown it when we got it. I've had enough of keeping things from Nan Callender. Of course, even among our heroes in prison, there still may be a 'Harry Rénard'; but it's far more likely that someone's telegraphed or printed 'Hilary Kinkaid' that way; for there was a Herry Rénard, Steve says, a captain, in Harper's calvary, who months ago quietly died in one of our own hospitals--at Lauderdale. Now, at headquarters, Steve says, they're all agreed that the name isn't a mite more suggestive than the pure daring of the deed, and that if they had to guess who did it they'd every one guess Hilary Kincaid."

She spread the story out on her knee: Exchange of prisoners having virtually ceased, a number of captive Confederate officers had been started up the Mississippi from New Orleans, under a heavy but unwary guard, on a "tin-clad" steamer, to wear out the rest of the war in a Northern prison. Forbidden to gather even in pairs, they had yet moved freely about, often passing each other closely enough to exchange piecemeal counsels unnoticed, and all at once, at a tap of the boat's bell had sprung, man for man, upon their keepers and instantly were masters of them, of them, of their arms stacked on the boiler-deck and of the steamboat, which they had promptly run ashore on the East Louisiana side and burned. So ran the tale, and so broke off. Ought Anna to be told it, or not?

"No," said the sister. "After all, why should we put her again through all those sufferings that so nearly killed her after Shiloh?"

"If he would only--"

"Telegraph? How do we know he hasn't?"

Next morning the two unencumbered Callenders went down the bay. But they found no need to leave the boat. A series of mishaps delayed her, the tide hindered, rain fell, and at length she was told to wait for orders and so lay all night at anchor just off Fort Gaines, but out of the prospective line of fire from the foe newly entrenched behind it. The rain ceased and, as one of Hilary's songs ran--

"The stars shed forth their light sere

ne."

The ladies had the captain's room, under the pilot-house. Once Anna woke, and from the small windows that opened to every quarter except up the bay townward looked forth across the still waters and low shores. Right at hand loomed Fort Gaines. A league away north-west rose small Fort Powell, just enough from the water to show dimly its unfinished parapets. In her heart's vision she saw within it her own Kincaid's Battery, his and hers. South-eastward, an opposite league away, she could make out Fort Morgan, but not the Tennessee. The cool, briny air hung still, the wide waters barely lifted and fell. She returned and slept again until some one ran along the narrow deck under her reclosed windows, and a male voice said--

"The Yankee fleet! It's coming in!"

Miranda was dressing. Out on the small deck voices were quietly audible and the clink of a ratchet told that the boat was weighing anchor. She rang three-bells. The captain's small clock showed half-past five. Now the swiftly dressed pair opened their windows. The rising sun made a golden path across the tranquil bay and lighted up the three forts and the starry battlecross softly stirring over each. Dauphin Island and Mobile Point were moss-green and pearly white. The long, low, velvety pulsations of the bay were blue, lilac, pink, green, bronze. But angry smoke poured from the funnels of the Tennessee and her three dwarf consorts, they four also showing the battle-flag, and some seven miles away, out in the Gulf, just beyond the gleaming eastern point of Sand Island, was one other sign of unrest.

"You see they're under way?" asked Anna.

Yes, Miranda saw, and sighed with the questioner. For there, once more--low crouched, war-painted and gliding like the red savages so many of them were named for, the tall ones stripped of all their upper spars, but with the pink spot of wrath flickering at every masthead--came the ships of Farragut.

The two women could not count them, so straight on were they headed, but a man near the window said there were seven large and seven less, lashed small to large in pairs. Yet other counting they did, for now out of Sand Island Channel, just west of the ships, came a shorter line--one, two, three, four strange barely discernible things, submerged like crocodiles, a hump on each of the first two, two humps on each of the others, crossed the fleet's course and led the van on the sunward side to bring themselves first and nearest to Morgan, its water-battery, and the Tennessee.

Anna sighed while to Miranda the man overflowed with information. Ah, ah! in Hampton Roads the Virginia had barely coped with one of those horrors, of one hump, two guns; while here came four, whose humps were six and their giant rifles twelve.

"Twenty-two guns in our whole flotilla," the man was saying to Miranda, "and they've got nearly two hundred." The anchor was up. Gently the boat's engines held her against the flood-tide. The man had turned to add some word, when from the land side of Gaines a single columbiad roared and a huge shell screamed off into the investing entrenchments. Then some lighter guns, thirty-twos, twenty-fours, cracked and rang, and the foe replied. His shells burst over and in the fort, and a cloud of white and brown smoke rolled eastward, veiling both this scene and the remoter, seaward, silent, but far more momentous one of Fort Morgan, the fleet, and the Tennessee.

The boat crept southward into the cloud, where only Gaines was dimly visible, flashing and howling landward. Irby was in that flashing. Steve was back yonder in Powell with Kincaid's Battery. Through Steve, present at the reading of a will made at Vicksburg the day after Hilary's capture there, Irby had just notified Anna, for Hilary, that their uncle had left everything to him, Adolphe. She hoped it was true, but for once in her life had doubts without discomfort. How idly the mind can drift in fateful moments. The bell tapped for six. As it did so the two watchers descried through a rift in the smoke the Tennessee signaling her grim litter, and the four crawling forward to meet the ships. Again the smoke closed in, but the small boat stole through it and hovered at its edge while the minutes passed and the foe came on. How plain to be seen was each pair, how familiar some of those taller shapes!

"The Brooklyn, 'Randa, right in front. And there again is the admiral's flag, on the Hartford. And there, with her topmasts down, is the Richmond--oh, 'Ran', it's the same bad dream once more!"

Not quite. There were ships new to them, great and less, whose savage names, told by the man near the window, chilled the blood with reminder of old wars and massacres: the Winnebago, Chickasaw, Octorora, Ossipee, Metacomet, Séminale. "Look!" said the man, pointing, "the Tecumseh--"

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