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   Chapter 69 SOUTHERN CROSS AND NORTHERN STAR

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 10339

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


A red streak and white sun-lit puff sprang from the leading monitor's turret, and the jarring boom of a vast gun came over the water, wholly unlike the ringing peals of Gaines's lighter armament. Now its opposite cranny puffed and thundered. The man smiled an instant. "Spitting on her hands," he said, but then murmured to himself, "Lord! look at that wind!"

"Is it bad?" asked Anna.

"It'll blow every bit of smoke into our men's eyes," he sighed.

The two white puffs melted into the perfect blue of sea and sky unanswered. Fort Gaines and its besiegers even ceased to fire. Their fate was not in their own guns. More and more weird waxed the grisly dumbness of five-sided Morgan and the spectral silence of the oncoming league-long fleet. The light wind freshened. By the bell's six taps it was seven o'clock. The boat drifting in on the tide made Fort Gaines seem to move seaward. Miranda looked back to Fort Powell and then out to sea again.

"The worst," said Anna, reading her thought, "will be down there with the Tennessee."

Miranda answered low: "Suppose, Nan, that, after all, he should--?"

Anna turned sharply: "Get here? I expect it! Oh, you may gaze! I don't forget how often I've flouted Con's intuitions. But I've got one now, a big one!"

"That he's coming?"

"Been coming these two days--pure presentiment!"

"Nan, whether he is or not, if you'll tell us what Colonel Greenleaf wrote you I'll tell you--"

For a second Anna stared, Miranda wrinkling; but then, with her eyes on the fleet, she shook her head: "You're mighty good, 'Randa, you and Con, never to have asked me in all these months; but neither he nor Hilary nor I will ever tell that. I wish none of us knew it. For one thing, we don't, any of us, know clearly enough what really happened. Dear Fred Greenleaf!--if he does wear the blue, and is right now over there behind Fort Gaines!"

She stood a moment pondering a fact not in the Union soldier's letter at all; that only through his masterful, self-sacrificing intercession in military court had Hilary escaped the death of a spy. But then her thought came back to Miranda's request: "I can't tell you, for I can't tell Con. Flora's her cousin, through Steve, and if she ever marries Captain Irby she'll be Hilary's cousin, and--"

There, suddenly and once for all, the theme was dropped. Some man's quick word broke in. Fort Morgan had veiled itself in the smoke of its own broadside. Now came its thunder and the answering flame and roar of the Brooklyn's bow-chaser. The battle had begun. The ship, still half a mile from its mark, was coming on as straight as her gun could blaze, her redskin ally at her side, and all the others, large and less, bounding after by twos. And now in lurid flash and steady roar the lightning and thunder darted and rolled from Morgan, its water-battery, and the Mobile squadron, and from the bow guns of the Brooklyn and Hartford.

How marvelously fire, din and smoke shriveled up the time, which the captain's small clock so mincingly ticked off. A cabin-boy brought a fragrant tray of breakfast, but the grateful ladies could only laugh at it. There was no moment to observe even the few pretty sail-boats which the fearful import and majesty of the strife lured down about them on the light side-wind.

"Has the Tennessee not fired yet?" anxiously asked Anna, but no one was sure. Across the breeze, that kept the near side of the picture uncurtained, she perfectly saw the Tecumseh close abreast of the flashing, smoke-shrouded fort, the Brooklyn to windward abreast of both, and the Hartford at the Brooklyn's heels with her signal fluttering to all behind, "Close order."

"Why don't the ships--?" Anna had it on her lips to cry, when the whole sunward side of the Brooklyn, and then of the Hartford, vomited fire, iron and blinding, strangling smoke into the water-battery and the fort, where the light air held it. God's mercy! you could see the cheering of the fleet's crews, which the ear could barely gather out of the far uproar, and just as it floated to the gazers they beheld the Tecumseh turn square toward them and head straight across the double line of torpedoes for the Tennessee.

We never catch all of "whatever happens," and neither Callender saw the brave men in gray who for one moment of horror fled from their own guns in water-battery and fort; but all at once they beheld the Tecumseh heave, stagger, and lurch like a drunkard, men spring from her turret into the sea, the Brooklyn falter, slacken fire and draw back, the Hartford and the whole huddled fleet come to a stand, and the rallied fort cheer and belch havoc into the ships while the Tecumseh sunk her head, lifted her screw into air and vanished beneath the wave. They saw Mobile Point a semicircle of darting fire, and the Brooklyn "athwart the Hartford's hawse"; but they did not see, atom-small, perched high in the rigging of the flag-ship and demanding from the decks below, "why this?" and "why that?" a certain "plain sailor" well known to New Orleans and the wide world; did not see the torpedoes lying in watery ambush for him, nor hear the dread tale of them cal

led to him from the Brooklyn while his ship passed astern of her, nor him command "full speed ahead" as he retorted, "Damn the torpedoes!"

They saw his ship and her small consort sweep undestroyed over the dead-line, the Brooklyn follow with hers, the Mobile gunboats rake the four with a fire they could not return, and behind them Fort Morgan and the other ships rend and shatter each other, shroud the air with smoke and thresh the waters white with shot and shell, shrapnel, canister and grape. And then they saw their own Tennessee ignore the monitors and charge the Hartford. But they beheld, too, the Hartford's better speed avoid the fearful blow and press on up the channel and the bay, though torn and bleeding from her foe's broadside, while her own futilely glanced or rebounded from his impenetrable mail.

Wisely, rightly their boat turned and slowly drew away toward Fort Powell and Cedar Point. Yet as from her after deck they saw the same exploit, at the same murderous cost, repeated by the Brooklyn and another and another great ship and their consorts, while not a torpedo did its work, they tearfully called the hour "glorious" and "victorious" for the Tennessee and her weak squadron, that still fought on. So it seemed to them even when more dimly, as distance and confusion grew and rain-clouds gathered, they saw a wooden ship ram the Tennessee, but glance off, and the slow Tennessee drop astern, allow a sixth tall ship and small consort to pass, but turn in the wake of the seventh and all but disembowel her with the fire of her great bow gun.

Ah, Anna! Even so, the shattered, steam-scalded thing came on and the last of the fleet was in. Yonder, a mere league eastward, it moved up the bay. Yet proudly hope throbbed on while still Mobile, behind other defenses, lay thirty miles away, while her gunboats still raked the ships, while on Powell, Gaines and Morgan still floated the Southern cross, and while, down in the pass, still unharmed, paused only for breath the Tennessee.

"Prisoners! they are all our prisoners!" tearfully exulted the fond Callenders. But on the word they saw the scene dissolve into a new one. Through a squall of wind and rain, out from the line of ships, four of their consorts glided away eastward, flashing and howling, in chase of the overmatched gunboats, that flashed and howled in retort as they fled. On the west a Federal flotilla in Mississippi Sound, steaming up athwart Grant's Pass, opened on Fort Powell and awoke its thunders. Ah, ah! Kincaid's Battery at last! Red, white and red they sent buffet for buffet, and Anna's heart was longing anew for their tall hero and hers, when a voice hard by said, "She's coming back, sir, the Tennessee."

Out in the bay the fleet, about to anchor, turned and awaited the new onset. By the time it was at hand the Mobile gunboats, one burning, one fled, one captured, counted for nothing, yet on crept the Tennessee, still singling out the Hartford, and here the two Callenders, their boat hovering as near Powell and Gaines as it dared, looked on the titanic mêlée that fell round her. Like hounds and hunters on a bear robbed of her whelps, seventeen to one, they set upon her so thickly that their trouble was not to destroy one another. Near the beginning one cut her own flag-ship almost to the water-line. The first that smote the quarry--at ten knots speed--glanced and her broadside rolled harmless into the bay, while two guns of her monster adversary let daylight through and through the wooden ship. From the turret of a close-creeping monitor came the four-hundred-and-forty-pound bolt of her fifteen-inch gun, crushing the lone foe terribly yet not quite piercing through. Another wooden ship charged, hit squarely a tearing blow, yet slid off, lay for a moment touching sides with the ironclad, while they lacerated each other like lion and tiger, and then dropped away. The hunted Hartford gave a staggering thrust and futile broadside.

So for an hour went the fight; ships charging, the Tennessee crawling ever after her one picked antagonist, the monitors' awful guns forever pounding her iron back and sides. But at length her mail began to yield, her best guns went silent, her smokestack was down, her steering-chains were gone, Buchanan lay heavily wounded. Of Farragut's twenty-seven hundred men more than a seventh had fallen, victims mainly of the bear and her cubs, yet there she weltered, helpless. From her grim disjointed casemate her valorous captain let down the Southern cross, the white flag rose, and instantly, everywhere, God's thunder and man's alike ceased, and the merciful heavens smiled white and blue again. But their smile was on the flag of the Union, and mutely standing in each other's embrace, with hearts as nearly right as they could know, Anna and Miranda gazed on the victorious stars-and-stripes and wept.

What caused Anna to start and glance behind she did not know; but doing so she stared an instant breathless and then, as she clutched Miranda for support, moaned to the tall, wasted, sadly smiling, crutched figure that moved closer--

"Oh, Hilary! Are you Hilary Kincaid?"

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