Hot Work

The wind was contrary and the two ships had difficult making their way back to Jamestown. An expected two or three days turned into four. But late on the third day, the lookout far above the decks of the Susquehanna, cried out, “Ship ahoy!” Capt. Monroe had been pacing the quarter deck impatiently, and he swung around immediately, with his eye glass up. One of the first things he saw was the unmistakable colors of the Union Jack.


The prize ship was about a mile ahead, and the British ship just spotted was coming up from astern. Capt. Monroe had already given his instructions to the prize crew, and though they saw the man of war also, they just continued on. The only thing they could possibly have done by hanging back would be to make a British victory more lucrative. They could not fight, and so as the looming battle unfolded they disappeared over the horizon.


Capt. Monroe immediately began shouting orders, and the Susquehanna immediately came about, all her men scrambling to quarters. Stephen, at his station for battle, in spite of all his eagerness to see action, wanted nothing more than for the shooting to start, and yet he felt like some kind of spider was crawling around in the back of his throat. A silence fell over the deck, and for a moment all Stephen could hear was the creak of wood, and the recurring slap of water at the bow. No one spoke. Lady Huntington had been taking the air on deck when the sail had been spotted, and Capt. Monroe issued a curt order to Stephen.


“Escort the lady to her quarters, instruct her to remain there unless summoned, and return here.” Stephen nodded, and approached Lady Huntington courteously, who was not happy about it but nevertheless complied.


When Stephen returned, he heard his brother telling Lt. Morris that the English had twenty-four guns, which, he said, “will not be a trouble if we play her right.” Lt. Morris nodded, appearing to understand what the captain was going to do. Stephen did not understand at all, but licked his lips as though that would help him watch more closely.


Neither ship made any move that would indicate it wanted to parley, and no signals were sent. Each was in a posture for battle, and nothing further was necessary. Everyone knew what was happening, and the silence on deck said that a naval battle was the only possibility. The wind was behind the Susquehanna, and the British ship was off her port bow, about twenty degrees. Capt. Monroe had more of a breeze to work with, and he managed it well. By veering slightly to starboard, Capt. Monroe made the English captain think that he was going to wager everything on a broadside, like a fool, even though he was outgunned.


But at the last moment, Capt. Monroe shouted, “Left full rudder!” and cut across the bow of the British ship, crossing her like a t. This meant that all his eight guns on the starboard side had a smaller target-but at least they could fire at that target, and the British ship could fire at nothing but the empty sea. And Capt. Monroe knew from all accounts that his gunners were marksmen-a smaller target was not a problem.


Fire!”


Flame shot out from the starboard side, eight guns recoiling back against the ropes, like lunging tigers. Inside her cabin, Lady Huntington jumped, despite the fact she had thoroughly prepared herself for the inevitable cannon fire. The cannonballs tore lengthways down the deck of the British ship, one of them splintering a portion of the mainmast, and dangerously weakening it. The mast began to lean ominously. In the still aftermath of the volley, across the water, they could hear some violent cursing. The Susquehanna spun away, and by the time the English s ship came about so that she could return fire, the Americans were nearly out of range. The Susquehanna was a smaller ship, lighter and much more maneuverable. Capt. Monroe had used all the firepower he had, without allowing the English to punch back at him at all. He could not do this indefinitely, but it was a good way to open the ceremonies.


The Susquehanna sailed on ahead of the British ship until there was enough distance to come around again. When that had happened, Capt. Monroe gave the order to turnabout, and they found themselves in exactly the same position they had been in just about fifteen minutes before. This time the English captain was much more wary, and had slowed to about five knots. But Capt. Monroe was now ready to trade broadsides. He strode over the hatch, and shouted down to the gunner’s mate. “They have four more guns than we do, but here it doesn’t signify. They will want to rake us, and if we fire first, and with any luck, enough of their shots will miss to make this an even exchange. Do not rake them. I want all your guns to concentrate on the same spot. Have all guns aim amidships, just above the water line.”


“Aye, aye, sir!”


The Susquehanna did fire first, and the effect was devastating. A large hole appeared in the side of the English ship, and Stephen watched as one cannon slid out and fell into the sea, followed by two men. But the next moment he realized with a shock and the English still had guns, and still intended to use them. The midshipmen were clustered behind Lt. Morris, armed with sabers, prepared to lead their sorties when the action got close. When the English broadside came, it raked the Susquehanna. All their cannons were filled with scraps of metal, bits of chain, broken glass, and bent nails. Stephen blinked at the roar, and heard the sound of thousands of angry bees whizzing past him, and splintering wood, and cries of pain. Looking to his right, he saw a broken trowel embedded in a nearby mast. He realized that one of the midshipmen who had been standing next to him was gone. Stephen turned around and saw his crumpled form alongside the opposite rail. But their hull was intact, as well as their masts and rigging. The first English volley had apparently consisted mostly of grapeshot and hard scraps, and about ten Americans were down.


The Susquehanna’s gunner’s mate had his cannons reloaded before they had completed their passage of the enemy ship, and he was ready to fire a second broadside. Capt. Monroe was leaning over the hatch, roaring below.


“Do the same again. Widen the hole! Fire!”


Stephen watched with wide eyes as the second round slammed into the side of the enemy. Water plumed and wood splintered. He turned away for a moment, and looked down the length of the Susquehanna. His eyes got wide again when he saw Lady Huntington, standing on the ladder of the forward hatch, looking out at the battle. The hatch surrounded her like a picture frame, and her white dress stood out sharply against the blackness behind her. He was about to run over and scold her back down below when a shout from his older brother interrupted him.


“Prepare to board!”


The British ship was listing dangerously to port. She did not appear to be in immediate danger of sinking, but she had taken on enough water to remove a great deal of the maneuverability she had-and she was the heavier ship to begin with. She was also listing enough that it was difficult to elevate her guns high enough to reach the Susquehanna. One volley was enough to tell Capt. Monroe how limited their range now was. The Susquehanna furled her sails, and was standing off, just out of range of the British guns that by now could only fire about twenty yards.


Capt. Monroe walked over the hatch again and said, “This time, aim just aft of the hole we have already made. Concentration!”


“Aye, aye, sir!”


Fire!”


Capt. Monroe’s tactics were strikingly effective, but a fortunate providence was also favoring them. Their cannonballs tore an awful hole that was now about fifteen yards wide. Immediately after the volley, Capt. Monroe leapt up on the rail, holding the rigging with his left hand, saber in his right. “Will you strike your colors?” No reply came, except for a single musket shot from a British marine that tore Capt. Monroe’s hat off. A lusty cheer arose among the English, and Stephen smiled in spite of himself. He looked back to where Lady Huntington was, and she was still there, looking out at the carnage with a fascinated mixture of admiration and horror. He also noticed that she was watching his brother . . . in just the same way. He had no time now to send her back below, and besides, the English cannon were not a threat anymore.


In a moment of eerie silence, across the water, they heard the cry, “Prepare to repel boarders!” The enemy ship could not return fire with cannon and the two ships drifted closer together. Capt. Monroe said something to Lt. Morris, who then shouted orders to some of the crew. About five men appeared, standing with grappling hooks at the ready.


“One more volley of cannon, and then the hooks!”


“Aye, aye!”


“This time, rake her decks!”


A faint aye aye came up from below decks. The gunner’s mate had anticipated this order, and his men were ready with their barrels of grapeshot, and broken glass, and nails.


Fire!”


The British crew was still reeling from the savage volley when the hooks started to fall on her decks, catching at her rails, and the Americans began to haul on the lines. The ships began to close. Stephen lined up with his men, a party of about ten seamen, all armed with sabers and pistols. Gunsmoke floated past them, momentarily obscuring their view of the enemy ship. Behind them, Stephen could hear the groans of some of the wounded. There were three other columns of men, all prepared to board in the same way. One was led by Lt. Morris, one by another midshipman, and one by one of the mates.


The two ships slammed together, and the boarding parties poured over the rail. The fact that the English ship was listing so far to port meant that the Americans could jump down from above. Stephen was the first to board, and he struck down the first two men he encountered. He turned to face a third and felt something that was like a sudden stinging lash on his left cheek. Stephen staggered backward and fell to the deck. He struggled back to his knees, and felt his cheek, which was bleeding profusely. The man he had been about to face was down, laid out by Capt. Monroe, who had seen all the parties board, and then followed up where he thought the hottest work would be. Stephen felt his cheek, and under the blood he could feel a long splinter of wood hanging down. He could still see out of his left eye.


He got to his feet heavily, and took two steps back toward the action. He could see Lt. Morris, fighting furiously with two sailors and behind him a marine lunging toward him with a bayoneted musket. Stephen tried to shout a warning, but the marine suddenly fell when Capt. Monroe stepped up and took off his head. The two men that Lt. Morris was fighting saw what had happened, and their sails suddenly went slack. They threw their swords on the deck and other men around them began to do the same. Lt. Morris turned around to look at Capt. Monroe, and instead of gratitude, Stephen was shocked to hear Lt. Morris shouting, “You cannot give quarter now!”


Captain Monroe ignored him. “Throw down your weapons!” More and more English sailors were doing so. The captain turned around to issue his command for surrender in the opposite direction. Lt. Morris stepped in front of him, his face flushed and angry. “You cannot give quarter!”


“But I do.”


“Liberty is not won by the soft-hearted! If our liberty requires blood, then our liberty calls for men who are willing to shed it.”


“Mr. Morris, please stand aside.” Capt. Monroe stared at him coldly, and after a long moment, Lt. Morris bowed stiffly at the waist, and stepped aside.


Toward the bow, some fighting was still going on, although more and more of the English were asking for quarter. Stephen took another step forward when a stray musket ball caught him in the left shoulder, spun him around, and dropped him to the deck.


***


When he opened his eyes again, he was completely confused. Everything was silent. He lifted his head, barely, and saw that he was back on the Susquehanna, on the afterdeck. He was the last in a row of wounded men. Next to him, he could see Lady Huntington stooped over a patient, tying a bandage off. Stephen noted absently that the man she was treating was wearing the clothes of a British sailor. Briskly finishing, she turned to Stephen, and smiled when she saw he was awake.


As she began to pull back his shirt, Capt. Monroe walked up behind her. “Madam, I thank greatly you for agreeing to help our surgeon. This is my brother and so I ask you give him particular consideration.”


Lady Huntington stopped for a moment, astonished. “He is your brother? And you did not have him treated first?”


Capt. Monroe shook his head. “No. Had his life been in danger. But other men needed attention first.”


“May I take it that we won?” Stephen croaked.


You won,” Lady Huntington said.


Capt. Monroe smiled, a little grimly. “Yes, we won. But the H.M.S. Splendor sank, leaving us with fifty prisoners, with only ten men to guard them. I’ll have to ask you to recover a little more quickly than perhaps you would otherwise do.”


Stephen tried to move his left arm and was barely successful. “I don’t think this is that bad.”


“I will decide that,” said Lady Huntington.


Stephen suddenly remembered his face, and reached up to touch it gingerly. All he could feel was crusted blood. “I must look a sight,” he said.


“That you certainly do,” his brother said. “And it may leave a garish scar to distress your mother and impress all the maidens around Annapolis. But you have long needed something to offset the perfection of your features.”


Stephen grinned, and leaned back, satisfied. He had been through his first battle, and he had not disgraced himself, or his family. He was alive, and though both wounds were throbbing, he could tell that he would be alright.


“We won,” he said. “And may I please have a drink of water?”


Lady Huntington turned around and beckoned someone, and a man quickly came up with a wooden bucket of water and a sponge. He knelt down beside Stephen’s head, lifted it up, and swabbed around his mouth with the sponge. He then squeezed the cold water into Stephen’s mouth. Stephen thought it was the most delicious moment of his life.


Lady Huntington was looking at his shoulder wound, and trying to decide how to dress it. The surgeon was working on those wounds where bones had to be set, or musket balls to be dug out. Lady Huntington had been given the task of cleaning and dressing those wounds that would require little else, and it soon appeared that Stephen was in that category.


“Does my brother know that you disobeyed to watch the battle?” Stephen asked.


Lady Huntington smiled. “Not that he has mentioned. And I see no need to mention it to him. He is not my captain.”


“Well, he is mine,” said Stephen. “But all is well.”


Lady Huntington, for all her refined upbringing, was very capable at what she was doing. She dressed Stephen’s shoulder wound in short order, and told him he would be up and about in a trice, and then turned to tend the wound on his cheek. As she was wiping away the blood, she asked, “And how old is your brother?”


Stephen blinked, surprised. A witticism occurred to him, but he thought better of it. “Thirteen years,” he said.


“Is this his first command?” she asked.


“First command, and first engagement,” Stephen replied. “God has answered our prayers for victory. I prayed mightily for this, I have to say.”


“I see,” she said. “And do you think God takes sides in affairs such as this? Suppose I prayed mightily that you would not win? How would God decide?”


Stephen had never thought of that. He knew there were Christian people on both sides of the Atlantic, and they would all presumably be praying for their own men and boys, off at war. He was silent, but because he was wounded, he thought he could get away with not answering. His first thought was to ask his brother. His second was to ask Lt. Morris. And he realized that he would almost certainly get completely different answers from them. 


For those who don’t know, I have written a couple of children’s stories for Veritas Press, Blackthorn Winter and Susan Creek respectively. It appears that it is time to write another one, which is entitled Two Williams, and which I have decided to serialize here. That is one of the reasons I had a continue reading feature added — so that the diversity cops who comb through my blog posts looking for yet one more example of my perfidy (a word that should be used more often) need not tie up their valuable time scrolling down through my fiction for kids, however edifying it might be to them. They are already sacrificing a lot of good day-time television to go through my stuff, and I don’t want to be rude or thoughtless.


Because this book (when complete) will be published by Veritas, I need to reserve the right to pull all the posts once it is in print, or not post the last chapter if it is a cliff-hanger. Anyhow, here it is, such as it is, and I hope your kids enjoy it. The intended audience is twelve-year-old boys, and the sisters who admire them, give or take twenty years. This little explanation will be tagged on to the end of each chapter as it is written and posted.

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