Fire on the Waters (Civil War at Sea Series #1)

Fire on the Waters (Civil War at Sea Series #1)

by David Poyer
Fire on the Waters (Civil War at Sea Series #1)

Fire on the Waters (Civil War at Sea Series #1)

by David Poyer


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The year is 1861, and America shudders on the brink of disunion. Elisha Eaker, scion of a wealthy Manhattan banking family, joins the Navy against his father's wishes. He does it as much to avoid an arranged marriage to his cousin, Araminta Van Velsor, as to defend the flag.
Eli meets Lieutenant Ker Claiborne aboard the sloop of war U.S.S. Owanee. An Annapolis graduate who's seen action in the West Indies and the Africa Station, Claiborne is cool and competent in storm and battle, but he now faces an agonizing choice between the Navy he loves and his native Virginia. Whichever road he takes, he'll be called a traitor.
With authentic nautical and historical detail, master sea-yarner David Poyer follows Eli, Araminta, Ker, and their loved ones and shipmates into a maelstrom of divided loyalties, bitter partings, stormy seas, governmental panic, political blundering, and, finally, the test of battle as the bloodiest and most divisive war in American history begins.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671046811
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 07/02/2003
Series: Civil War at Sea Series , #1
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

David Poyer is the most popular living author of American sea fiction. Sailor, engineer, and retired naval captain, he lives on Virginia's Eastern Shore with novelist Lenore Hart and their daughter. Please visit David Poyer's website at

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The United States Steam Sloop Owanee • Introduced to Lieutenant Ker Claiborne • Within a Damaged Boiler • The Silver-Filmed Eye of Uncle Ahasuerus • Disagreement Relating to the Newly Elected President • Contents of a Carpetbag • Captain Trezevant Boards His Ship

The black ship's wedge of bow split hammered-iron river from a galvanized sky. Her topmasts tilted above a spiky undergrowth of spars and shears. Smoke streamed from her single funnel off over the gray-green flatness of the East River, merging at last with the sooty pall from the thousands of other ships and homes and factories of Manhattan.

As Elisha Eaker dropped his boots into trampled mud, the smells of horse dung and coal ashes bloomed in his nostrils. He paid the hack off with a red-dog note, then stood coughing, holding a handkerchief to his lips as its wheels ground away.

Was it wise, to venture this? Was it really a way out? Or was all pride and folly, the disordered imaginings of a feverish brain?

Eli was tall and young, with pale, smoothly shaven cheeks. A sword tilted awkwardly at his side. He'd put on the regulation full dress for the first time that morning. Epaulettes from Warnock and lace from Tiffany's; a cocked hat and silk stock and gold-striped pantaloons.

Marine sentries in pomponed shakos and white gloves snapped to present arms as he reached the gate. He expected them to ask for a password, given the unrest in the city and, indeed, throughout the Republic this apprehensive spring. But they neither questioned nor hindered him, and after a moment he walked on, into the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The sloop's masts loomed against the smoldering sky as he headed downhill past foundries and shops echoing with the clang of iron and the shouts of workmen. Her black sides towered from the murky bay. Even immobile, she looked somber and intimidating.

But did he belong here? Or was he only fooling himself?

He hesitated again, then pushed doubt away and marched up the gangway. His boot caught, and only the manrope saved him from flinging himself into the dark water that sloshed and bumped a frowsy lumber of dead rats and waterlogged dunnage. At the top he drew in a deep first breath of her, of the curious, deep, peculiar ship-redolence mingled and amalgamated of tar and brass polish, coal dust and slowly mortifying oak, of old food and the damp reek of packed-in men; and beneath it all the sweet, smoky cured-tobacco aroma of the hempen rigging that lifted above him like a frozen whirlwind up into the murky sky.

A stocky, bullet-headed petty officer aimed him a questioning scowl. Eli saluted him and said, — Good day. My name is Elisha Eaker, and I am here to join your ship.

Lieutenant Ker Claiborne, U.S. Navy, first lieutenant and acting executive officer of U.S.S. Owanee, had slept for three hours out of the last forty-eight. Two days before, the yard commander had ordered her coaled and provisioned to sail at short order, and her just-dismissed crew remustered from the concert saloons, cider stubes, and panel houses of Five Points and the Bowery. Captain Trezevant had passed the command along with an ironic twist of the lips — a sardonic humor Ker would have shared, if he had not been so disquieted of late.

He was in the teak-paneled wardroom, going over a bill of lading by the light of a gimbaled lamp, when one of the ship's boys, looking, as usual, as if he expected to be caned, rapped at the jamb.

— What is it, Jerrett? Another of our lads back aboard drunk?

— No sir. Gunner Babcock's compliments, and there's a gen'lman on the quarterdeck to see you.

A caulking hammer tapped somewhere. Ker dipped the pen; held the back of his wrist against his pointed beard, pondering; then etched a line in firm Spencerian. He glanced at the card the boy laid on his desk. — Tell the gunner I will be up directly. Then carry this to Mr. Glass, if you please.

The boy vanished, and Claiborne rose, head brushing the varnished beams. He buttoned his coat and took his service cap off a peg. He studied a curved glass tube on the bulkhead. Then turned the lamp down, and went up the companionway.

The air on deck felt bracing after twenty-four months off West Africa. He'd contracted the fever of the country off the Guinea coast, and it came calling with chills and ague when he drove himself too hard. As he most likely was just now.

He touched his beard again, looking across the water not at the tropic continent but at his own country; but instead of comfort, memory and apprehension chilled his heart. When Owanee had deployed, two years before, the nation had been quiet. But since she'd returned, it seemed men had gone mad, lost their senses or been mastered by demons.

Like the Gadarene swine, he thought, we stampede blindly toward an infinite and fatal abyss.

Forward on the main deck, the gunners were scraping an amber paste of grease and varnish off the Dahlgren, flinging each bladeful into a tin bucket. A few yards aft, the boatswain was supervising a party swaying up the fore-topmast. At a pipe of his silver whistle the hoistlines tautened. The mast stood upright, then lifted its heel just clear of the deck, searching in the wind like an old man's uplifted and uncertain cane. Ker ran a critical eye over the rigging. He'd apprenticed to the art at Annapolis. The old school ship Preble had been just seaworthy enough to jog about the Chesapeake, but her sail plan and fitting out had been classic sailing Navy. Summer cruises to the Caribbean and Mediterranean on the Plymouth added experience of levanters and hurricanes, but it was off the coast of Africa that he'd become a master. Coal was scarce and dear, and Owanee had sailed through most of her service there.

A curious tableau awaited him on the quarterdeck. A fair-haired young fellow, not badly made, but whose pale face and slack posture gave the impression of a life spent at ease, stood beside the ship's gunner. He was in full dress, but wore no insignia of rank. Ker made him the abbreviated bow one gives a stranger of whose intention one is uncertain. — Lieutenant Ker Claiborne, at your service.

— My name is Elisha Eaker. Late of the firm of Eaker and Callo-well, of Manhattan.

— Did you wish to see the purser, sir? If it is a matter of business.

Eaker hesitated, then drew a document from his sleeve.

Ker was pondering it when a hoarse snort bellowed from the smokestack. A black cloud shot up, then hovered between mainmast and mizzen like a cloud of summer midges. Greasy flakes fluttered down like black snow.

— That turd Hubbard's doing, no doubt, and without the least concern for us topside, said the gunner angrily.

Eaker glanced around, at the morose-looking seamen, the rows of heavy guns that lined the waist. He flicked a flake of soot from his sleeve. — Could we perhaps...?

And Ker said, — Certainly, sir. If you'll accompany me below?

Eighty feet aft, a scraping clang sounded from within a well of darkness. A moment later a little man in grease-stained denims and a cap with a broken bill emerged headfirst from beneath an iron casting that extended from the shadowy bilges to thick glass skylights thirty feet up. Their pearly glow illuminated a firm chin, determined lips, and deep-set eyes that peered from a face so sooted he resembled a blackface minstrel.

Theodorus Hubbard, Owanee's engineer, wiped his hands on a twist of cotton and pitched it overhand into a bucket. He braced his diminutive frame against a massive door. It slowly gathered momentum, then slammed shut with an iron boom that traveled the length of the space, dying away along catwalks, pumps, copper-shining piping, gutta-percha hose, glass tube-gauges of foaming water the color of melted opals. He said in a Connecticut twang, — Pappy, what I want to know is, how you let everything go to hell in just two weeks.

The burly man above him growled, — Well, last I heard was they was going to jerk this heap o' junk out of her and install one of them new Isherwoods. Never thought to be takin' her back to sea.

— Get them stokers on the rails. Watch the gauge when you cut in the crossover. Let's fire her up, see if she holds.

MacNail's shout echoed above the inhaling roar of fans and the slap of leather blower belts. Two huge men with Irish faces ran toward them, boots hammering the limber boards laid over bilges black with a slurry of coal dust, ash, and seawater. They seized fascines of kindling, heaved them into the furnace, and tossed bucketfuls of kerosene after. MacNail hastily seated twelve huge iron nuts on the man-cover from which Hubbard had emerged, then began torquing them down with a wrench as the stokers snatched shovels off iron clips and threw coal like men possessed, raising a fine choking dust of black anthracite.

Eli followed Claiborne down a shoulder-wide ladder into a low cabin that smelled of segar smoke, spar varnish, and the rotten-egg stench of sulphur fumigant. The lieutenant pointed to a chair. Eli aligned his cap on his knees and cleared his throat. — Are you the master of this vessel?

— The captain, you mean? No. I am the first lieutenant and executive officer. Just appointed as Captain Trezevant's second in command.

— Might I see the captain?

— He is not aboard at present. Nor would it be proper for me to intrude your presence upon him without ascertaining your business here, and that in considerable detail.

The lieutenant looked tired. Eli noticed he wore no sword, and began to doubt whether his own was not out of place. He nudged it around out of sight behind him as Claiborne said, — Well, sir, let's have another look at those papers.

As he leafed through them, Eli found his glance arrested by two small gleaming eyes that stared back at him from a fiddle-boarded bookcase. In the dimness he gradually made out that they were set in a tiny wizened face. He stood to examine what he took for a stuffed curio, then put out a hand. And staggered back a moment later, gripping his finger and stifling a scream.

— His name's Auguste, said Claiborne as the monkey hopped out, drawing a minuscule paw across its mouth and chattering angrily at the New Yorker. — Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, to give him his complete honors. We took him and a few of his compatriots aboard at Porto Praya. As the days passed they gradually grew fewer, but we were hard put to tell where they'd gone. Finally we discovered this fellow here was pitching the smaller ones overboard at night to watch them swim.

The animal leapt to the floor and scrabbled up the companionway. Claiborne turned the documents over, scanning each with every appearance of interest. Finally he cleared his throat. — I hope you will not take it amiss if I observe I have never heard of the New York Naval Militia.

— Not at all. Eli wrenched his mind away from the ape, how disturbingly its shadowy leer had parodied a human smile. — It's a volunteer body, recently organized among the better sort of the city. Those who wish to step forward, should the slavocratic conspiracy put our temper to the test.

— Should the what?

— The renegade Carolinians who feel disposed to insult our flag.

Claiborne said gravely, — You must pardon me; I have been absent the country, and am unfamiliar with the political cant of the moment.

— You must know that the Deep South states have rejected all compromise, and set up a rump legislature at Montgomery.

— I read the journals, sir; and as far as I know, no offer of concession has been tendered them as yet. But let us lay that difficult topic aside. Your purpose in visiting Owanee?

Eli felt steadily less comfortable. The gravely courteous officer before him was plainly from south of the Mason-Dixon. The fellow's eyes, too, were unsettling, the same pale bleached blue as the noon sky in August. — I'm here to help in any way you may find convenient. I won't require pay.

— No pay, eh? It's true we're shorthanded just now. Claiborne examined the letters again. — These reflect attendance at Harvard University. What degree did you take?

— I was permitted to withdraw after two years, for reasons of health.

— You appear robust enough to me.

Eli said carefully, — Just now I feel well.

— Do you have anything resembling experience at sea?

— My family's been in shipping for three generations. I've also spent some considerable time aboard Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt's private yacht.

Claiborne's eyebrows rose. — I see. Aboard his private yacht. You know Mr. Vanderbilt intimately, I take it?

— Not intimately, but well enough to speak to.

The exec mused over this for a moment more, then reached for a bell. — Ask the bo's'n to step in, he said to Jerrett's apprehensive countenance. — Your qualifications would not go so far as a mate's ticket, would they, Mr. Eaker?

— I'm afraid not. I'm willing to learn, though. And as I said, I will be happy to serve without emolument.

A tap at the doorjamb, and the exec motioned in a spare, spry old warrant with a furrowed brow, bright black eyes, and a preposterous forked gray-and-tobacco beard that hung below his waist. Claiborne introduced him as Josiah Girnsolver, Owanee's boatswain. He told Girnsolver their visitor had alluded to experience in yachts, and that his qualifications as a sailing officer were under discussion.

The old man turned his head slowly to the left, then to the right, as if easing a stiff neck. He pulled up a trowser-leg, revealing the top of a prickly-looking red wool sock. Then said in a Down East accent, scratching his ankle thoughtfully, — Wal, let's say the cap'n tells ya to furl sails. What d'ya say to carry that out, now, sor?


Eli cleared his throat, calling on Mnemosyne to assist him. — To furl sails. Well, first I should call away the men. Um, then, command them to go aloft.

— "Aloft t'gallant and royal yardmen?" Girnsolver suggested.

— Quite so. When they have gained the rigging, get the topmen aloft; then man my clew jiggers —

— Buntlines and clew jiggers?

— I was about to say, buntlines as well. When all men are in position, I tell them to furl away. Then when all is complete, to lay down from aloft, I suppose.

Claiborne prompted, — And the downbooms?

— I should tell them to lay in the downbooms.

They regarded him noncommittally. The warrant fingered his whistle, which hung from his neck on a lanyard of ornately embroidered marline. He said, — Say ye're under way by the wind on a starboard tack, under all sail. What d'ya do if the wind hauls aft, as the officer of the deck?

Eli coughed into his fist, fighting both nervousness and the familiar rising tickle in his throat. — Maintaining the same course? I should first ease off sheets. Get a pull of the braces. Man the halyards on deck, then haul taut and hoist away. And make sure, ah, make sure the boom, I forget the name of it, but make sure it's ready for coming back in.

Claiborne asked him, — How many pieces of gear does a fully rigged ship need?

He sat struck dumb. There would be hundreds, no, thousands of fittings and parts from truck to keel. Then he smiled.

— Why, none, of course. If she needed any, she would not be fully rigged.

The first officer favored him with a lifted eyebrow. — He's got that right, at least. Well, Boats?

— 'E don't know the commands, sor.

— Granting that, his unfamiliarity with service phraseology.

— Well, he's sort of got the idear. We maught could train him up, if he was willing to work. But a verbal examination ain't no proof of his effectiveness on deck. And a yacht ain't no warship.

The exec turned to Eli and cleared his throat. — Well, you have heard your judgment rendered. A segar, sir?

— Thank you, no. Feel free, if you like.

— Bo's'n?

— Thanks, sor, b'lieve I will indulge.

The two navy men lifted the globe of the lamp to light their cheroots. The lieutenant settled back on the settee, puffing out a cloud of rum-cured Cuban as the clank and drag of a massive chain reverberated through the overhead. — Are you certain you wish to subject yourself to sea-discipline, Mr. Eaker? The rigors and subordination of a man-of-war are quite a comedown from the leisure of civilian existence.

— I shall endeavor to do so to the best of my ability.

— So you present yourself as a gentleman volunteer, is that what we are to understand? Serving on a pro bono basis, with no allowances of any sort?

— That is correct, sir.

The exec cleared his throat. — An irregular mode of proceeding; but these seem to be irregular times. The final decision must be the captain's. Still, it's true we're very shorthanded. I will propose this: you take over the Forecastle Division; and since our gunnery officer has left for Mississippi, assume that position as well, at least temporarily. I'll ask Mr. Duycker to be your bear-leader. That is, to break you in on deck, and give you such guidance as you may need to find your footing.

Eli recalled the black weapons couched on the deck above, the half-naked men slaving over them like acolytes of a heathen temple. He had not anticipated quite so responsible a task so soon. But this did not seem to be the time to offer demurrals. Claiborne waited, then went on, — Bo's'n, have him put into Mr. Minter's stateroom, if you please. Then bring him back for luncheon, and we'll take his measure in the mess.

His cabin was soberingly small, dark, and dank, so much so he suspected he was being shown a punishment cell by way of further test; but he said nothing, simply nodded to the old man. Girnsolver was leading him down a narrow passageway when a smear-faced little fellow in dirty clothes shoved past. Eli started to protest, then closed his mouth again. He brushed smut off his coat and continued after Girnsolver, who was rambling to the end of what was obviously a well-worn tale about Captain Porter and the old Essex's battle with the Cherub and Phoebe off Valparaiso in March of '14.

— Y're joinin' a good ship here, sor. Not tae much Andrew Miller and sichlike pimpiness, and the prog's first-rate. We're supposed to go inta ordinary, after this long trick in Africky, but scuttlebutt is they're sending us down to deal with these here se-cessionists. Since we're about the only steamer left around.

— The rest of the fleet's overseas, I understand.

— Yes sor, in the Med or off Brazil. If something goes to pop, we're the ones t'will have to pull the chestnuts. Girnsolver opened another door, gestured him through. — Mind you use the right fork, sor, and good luck.

Claiborne introduced him simply as a Manhattan gentleman, interested in joining the sea service. Mindful that his stay was uncertain, Eli merely bowed as, one after the other, the exec introduced the men around the dining table.

The paymaster and purser was a supercilious-looking Israelite named Judah Glass. The smutty boy who'd jostled Eli in the corridor had become a small-framed but fully grown man, face scrubbed, re-attired in a civilian sack coat and tie. He was introduced as Mr. Theodorus Hubbard. A magnificently mustachioed officer in a blue army-style uniform and gold shoulder knots was presented as Lieutenant Robert Schuyler, commanding Owanee's detachment of marines.

Nicholas Duycker was a lean, graying master; he favored Eli with a Voltairean smirk as they shook hands. Eli recognized the man Claiborne had appointed to "bear-lead" him.

A corpulent, brandy-breathed fellow well past youth rose grudgingly to the name of Doctor Alphaeus Steele. There remained two very young midshipmen, Eddowes and Thurston, and three empty places. When the proprieties were satisfied Claiborne took the head of the table and led them in a short grace.

— Well, and what is the mood of the city today? Dr. Steele asked Eli as an aged, bent Negro in a rusty frock coat slowly passed from one to the next, pouring out a tablespoon of claret to each glass.

He noted the others awaiting his lead as guest. He raised the glass to his lips, though he did not actually drink. Instead of answering he said, — And this man? Has he a name?

Claiborne looked puzzled. — I believe I have introduced everyone.

— Not our sable friend here, said Eli, turning in his seat to face the Negro.

The table quieted. The old man had stopped short, on his way out with the carafe, but did not speak. Looking up, Elisha saw the far orb turned on him now. A silver-filmed sphere, immobile, obviously blind, it yet gave the impression of preternatural observation. An elderberry mark was tattooed on each temple in the shape of a shark's fin. The front teeth were filed, not to points, but successively, long yellow teeth alternating with mere pegs. A chill hackled Eli's spine.

— We call him Uncle Ahasuerus, said Claiborne quietly. — He does not answer you because he cannot speak. He was mutilated some years ago by the Kroomen, his own tribe. Why, we do not know. When we took him off a Brazil-bound slaver he indicated his desire to stay with us, in the capacity wherein you see him. He is Commander Trezevant's — is the phrase fidus Achates?

Eli nodded. The reference was to Vergil; Achates had been the faithful companion who accompanied Aeneas on his wanderings.

The steward left, vanishing into some back pantry. Dr. Steele rumbled his throat free and said again, — What news from the city? Is the mayor still offering to secede, along with his friend Jeff Davis?

A chuckle ran around the table. Eli flushed, reminded of the corrupt Fernando Wood's proposal that New York should leave what he called a "dismembered government," the better to retain its hundreds of millions in Southern business. — The city's overwhelmingly loyal. My father says the price of gold has found its level —

An etheric current seemed to run around the table, as at the séances popular in some circles. Duycker drawled, — Your father wouldn't be —

— He is Micah Eaker.

— Who is...? said Claiborne, looking from one to the other.

— A Manhattan financier, Hubbard said darkly, helping himself to a tureen of Lynnhaven oysters. Eli caught his glance; the envy in it was unmistakable.

Steele hoisted his eyebrows. — Not merely a "financier," my dear Hubbard. Micah Eaker sitteth at the right hand of Vanderbilt and Astor.

— One fellow who won't cavil at the mess bill, at least, Glass muttered.

— Moreover, he is one of the leading lights of Republicanism in the Empire State. And you, sir? Do I sense you too worship at that dusky shrine?

Eli helped himself to the stewed oysters, trying to keep his sangfroid. The room was warm, and the hot food didn't help; he felt sweat break under the heavy wool uniform. — I am a Republican. Not from any sense of righteousness, I am afraid. My grandfather traded to Africa and, I regret to say, trafficked in helpless men and women, stolen from their homes.

— A trade which has not yet ended, Glass put in. — We have just returned from a long patrol on the Gulf of Guinea, and had several encounters with illegal blackbirders. Most of whose masters, interestingly enough, hail from New England.

Steele pressed. — You are a Lincolnian, sir?

— Since hearing him, yes, I number myself among those friendly to him.

— You've met the president? Schuyler said. The marine had a scratchy, damaged-sounding voice, and touched his collar as he spoke.

— I heard him speak at Cooper Union, when he began his quest for the nomination.

Duycker said contemptuously, — You support the man who's destroying the Union? Does he really resemble what Mr. Darwin would style — how would you put it, Hubbard — our "anthropoid cousins"?

Claiborne cleared his throat in warning. But Eli replied, as coolly as he could, — Not at all. It's true he's taller than the average, but he's not the outlandish character such pandering rags as the Herald make him out to be.

Duycker smiled loftily, started to respond, but the exec said sharply, — Politics are out of order in the mess, gentlemen. Find some other topic.

— Such as the impossibility of putting to sea with these wretched boilers, the engineer said.

The others sighed. Eli essayed a chuckle. — We can still sail, can't we?

Hubbard glared. — Useless top-hamper, and a lot of useless hands to pull it about. Throw it all overboard, and fill the hull with coal.

— Mr. Hubbard is a mechanical enthusiast, Claiborne explained. — But sails do not break down, Theo. Should a mast go to smash, we simply jury-rig a spar. But when her engine breaks down, a steamer is helpless.

— A ship should have two, then.

— That really is going beyond the bounds of good taste, said Glass silkily. — We should be manned with nothing but grease monkeys and Paddy stokers, and sleep with lumps of bituminous stuffed into our ticking.

They chortled as the ancient Negro, glaring out from his unclouded eye, took off the soup plates and brought baked cod in thin, flaky crust, asparagus, hot scones and sweet butter, and sliced burgaloos for dessert. By the time they sipped hot coffee ground from beans purchased in the Bay of Benin, Dr. Steele was dilating on a remarkable flower that he had observed in Martinique. — The mere scent of which can induce vomiting. If inhaled in a closed room, I was told, it would induce death in persons of weakened constitution; by reason of which, it has been implicated in numerous mercy murders of the aged and infirm.

And the unpleasant topic of disunion had been banished from the speech, if not the thoughts, of all.

After luncheon Claiborne put him together with the gunner, one Thomas Babcock, a heavyset, saturnine, bald-headed warrant, or senior petty officer, old enough to be his father, if not his grandfather; in fact the same man Eli had first saluted on stepping aboard. Babcock, who seemed to be in a bad humor, carried a colt, a short length of braided manila that he continually slapped against his thigh. He led Eli on a tour of their demesne. Owanee carried five guns. To port and starboard midships crouched four old-style thirty-two-pounders, grim Jaganaths on oaken carriages with lignum vitae trucks. The largest, though, was the single huge nine-inch Dahlgren. It was mounted forward, but iron racers on deck made it trainable to either broadside. The gunners were working on it, scraping off the last of a greasy coating. Babcock explained that they were preparing the metal for varnishing. Gradually Eli noted that their apparent leader was a huge man with enormous shoulders.

He muttered to the gunner, — Is he a member of the crew?

— Hanks! Stand to attention.

The sailor froze, half turned at the warrant's peremptory summons. For the merest fraction of a second Eli caught a red-eyed gaze, direct and full of what looked very much like hatred. Then, quick as the snap of a caplock, a blank mask took its place. The sailor laid aside an iron handspike, straightened from his work, and came to attention in front of them.

— Calpurnius Hanks, sir.

— Mr. Eaker didn't address you, boy, said Babcock threateningly. — You keep that mouth shut till you hear an order, or you and me are going to have a falling-out. The sailor blinked; his mouth compressed, then sank back into a quiescent line.

Eli did not count himself as a small man, but Hanks looked twice as wide. He examined the rounded head, the small, protruding ears, curled as if they'd been given a hard twist in infancy. His beard was tightly curled, as if twisted back into the skin. His lips were fleshier than a white man's and, with the heavy, outthrust jaw, projected the lower half of his face forward. Deep brown irises deepened to a black pool, the whites like old ivory. Eli's glance dropped to large, curled hands, then to big, blacked, square-toed boots.

— He calls himself a freedman, said Babcock, slapping the colt into his palm. Eli noted a tattooed American flag on the back of his hand. — But I think he's an escaped slave.

He tried to imagine the black in rags, fleeing, the way Liza jumped across the ice floes in Mrs. Stowe's play. He could not catch the man's gaze. It floated beyond him, fast to the distant line of river and bay.

— Your position aboard, Hanks? Eli asked him.

The wide lips hesitated. — Second gun cap'n on numbah one, sir.

— Are you truly an escaped slave?

— Fugitive slaves not permitted to enlist in the navy, sir.

He nodded. A good answer to a question he realized now he should not have asked. — Very well, Hanks. You can go back to your work.

They descended from there to inspect the magazines, arms lockers, and departmental records. Eli insisted on an inventory. Two hours later, he realized it was well he had. Eight of the ship's revolvers were missing.

— Mr. Minter did leave with a heavy carpetbag, Babcock said darkly.

— I had best report this loss to Mr. Claiborne.

— You think he'll mind?

Eli frowned. — What do you mean by that?

Babcock met his eye, glowering. — Sir, we enlisted men can't resign. That'd be desertion. But the officers are let to walk off whenever they like. If I might speak frankly, there's others still aboard more secesh than otherwise.

— I will not countenance criticism of the officers, Eli said stiffly. — Excuse me.

Neither gun room nor wardroom held Claiborne. Only when Eli came out onto the main deck, now cooler beneath the threat of a squall, did he see him by the gangway, peering through a telescope. When he came up the first lieutenant clapped it shut.

— A word, sir.

— Your servant, Mr. Eaker.

He explained about the revolvers, and Babcock's suspicion as to their fate. Claiborne's lips tightened, but he said only, — I will enter that information in the log. Now, if you please, stand away from the quarterdeck.

Two men were walking toward them down the pier. One was in undress uniform, a lean aristocrat with a raptorial nose and weather-beaten complexion. The other was stouter, black bearded, in a steel-pen coat and top hat. He gestured expansively with both arms as they paused at the brow.

The boatswain's pipe shrilled. — Owanee, arriving, Midshipman Thurston shouted to the quartermaster. A pendant snapped down from the leaden sky, leaving the Stars and Stripes to rustle and flap alone in a sudden cold breeze.

The officer paused as he stepped aboard, sweeping a keen glance aloft, then down the main deck. As he returned Claiborne's salute his gaze marked Eaker, then returned to his companion as the latter resumed speaking.

— That's the captain? Elisha asked, when the new arrivals had vanished below.

— Commander Parker Bucyrus Trezevant, Owanee's commanding officer.

— And the other?

— A Mr. Fox, a former naval man who I understand now runs a woolen mill. He is connected with the Blairs. Something of a politician, I suspect.

Eli said, — I'd like to step ashore now, if no one minds. Is that all right?

— That is generally phrased in the service, "Request permission to go ashore, sir." Claiborne smiled, making a jest of it rather than a rebuke, and Elisha found himself liking the Southerner. — You will not stay the evening? Theodorus is not a bad hand at the harmonium, and the captain carries a baritone. We also play various and beautiful but somewhat uncertain games of cards. But perhaps you have a rendezvous with one of the softer sex.

Eli flushed, recalling who actually waited for him, and what he had to tell him. The thought made his palms sweat. For a moment he was tempted to confide in Claiborne, perhaps ask his advice. But at last all he said was, — I'm expected home.

Facing the old flag, he contemplated its bloody scarlet and empyrean blue, the scatter of stars, each separate, yet conveying in their massed ranks power and unanimity. Could it be possible that the "mystic chords of memory," as the new president had styled them in his inaugural address, could be sundered? He could not believe it. The erring sisters would return, once a firm hand was shown. But by then he'd be free. One way or another, surely he would be free.

Descending the gangway, he vanished into the blue evening.

Copyright © 2001 by David Poyer

Table of Contents



New York, April 6­9, 1861.


Sumter, April 10­13, 1861.


Washington, April 16­19, 1861.


Hampton Roads, April 17­21, 1861.


New York, April 30, 1861.

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