A Tall Ship Tale #85: Son of a Gun

Another story from Paul DeAnguera.

Having failed to change the course of the War of 1812, the H.M.S. Legume fled down the Potomac to Chesapeake Bay — only to find the way to the Atlantic blocked by her nemesis, the U.S.S. Groundpea. Through their brass telescopes, the officers on the quarter-deck studied the enemy frigate uneasily. She had changed somewhat since they had last seen the Groundpea in Giza, a large black tube now stood up from the main deck.

“Is that a mortar or some sort of rocket launcher?” the chief gunner wondered.

“Perhaps we could wait until dark and slip past her,” the First Mate suggested. But Captain Quid shook his head.

“Captain Blight is too smart for that trick. We’ll have to fight our way out! Luckily we’re upwind of her. We’ll load the port cannons with grapeshot and the starboard ones with chain, rake her stern and …”

“They’ve seen us! They’re — dropping sail?” As they bore down on the American ship, its crew was taking in all sail as fast as they could. Suddenly a plume of sooty smoke shot out of the mysterious tube; apparently the Americans’ fancy-schmancy rocket launcher had caught fire. The crew of the Legume laughed and laughed. But when they looked again, they were stunned to see the enemy ship approaching them against the wind, white water foaming around its bow. It was quickly getting larger.

“That’s unnatural,” the First Mate muttered, shading his eyes. There was a glittering in the enemy’s rigging that he did not like the look of.

“Pull the flying lever,” Quid directed. “We can drop our ballast on them as we pass overhead.” But, just as the British ship rose from the water, a Gatling gun opened up from the Groundpea’s fighting top and stitched holes in the Legume’s main sail. The holes were neatly arranged into letters:

S U R R E N D E R   D O R O T H Y

Professor Marvel blanched. But the First Mate wasn’t finished yet. “We can turn the whole ship into a weapon,” he sputtered. “The Legume has a bow. We’ll make it into a cross-bow and fire the mizzen mast at them. Evacuate the front half of the ship!”

Meanwhile, oblivious to the ensuing conflict, seaman Almo Sather emerged from the forecastle. It was time to give his bedding its monthly airing. He stepped to the rail, unfurled a sheet that could still pass for white and shook it vigorously. In reply, the American frigate exhibited a white flag. Captain Quid had himself rowed out to confer with his American counterpart. He was smiling when he returned.

“Oh, we’ll still have a battle,” he told his officers. “But violence is not needed. We can settle this with a gentlemanly contest!”

“You mean, single combat?” the First Mate asked.

“Aye, Lieutenant; and you shall be our champion!”

The new champion took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “And the weapons?” he asked.

“Puns — at twenty paces!”

Soon an American boat made its way to the Legume, disappearing and reappearing as it passed over the crests and into the troughs of a series of big, rounded waves. “Hugo Phirst,” their leader introduced himself as he climbed through the entry point.

“Already?” The First Mate scrambled mentally. “It looks like you had a swell trip,” he offered.

“It was an easier row than you’d think, thanks to our ergonomically-correct, hand-crafted oars.”

“Really? Where did you get them?”

“A chandler’s at Walbrook; I forget the name. We just call it ‘The little shop of oarers.’”

The First Mate flinched. “Can I offer you a tour of the ship?” They climbed a short flight of steps to the quarter-deck. “We call this the quarter-deck because, with practice, you can toss a quarter from here and hit the tip of the first spar on the main-mast. Watch this!” And his hand flashed out suddenly. The quarter rang as it bounced off the spar and dropped into the water.

“Let me try that,” Hugo said. He fished around in his waistcoat pockets, but could only come up with a 10-cent piece. Nevertheless he scaled it out at the spar. The coin spun on the tip a couple of times and fell snugly into place. The First Mate shook his head admiringly. “Brother, can you spar a dime!”

‘What’s that round thing hanging from the mizzen-mast?” Hugo wondered.

“An astronomical navigation aid,” the First Mate explained. “At night, to sail south-southwest, we just keep Orion the ball.”

Now the Yankee was two down and sweating. “We noticed already that your ship carries some unconventional gear,” he remarked. “But the Groundpea has its share too. You probably noticed our Gatling gun.”

“An anachronism, it seems. They won’t be invented until 1862,” the First Mate said.

“It’s a prototype,” Hugo explained. “Richard J. Gatling arranged with the Navy for a field trial. He sent one of his sons along to direct the tests.” He turned to the entry port to offer a hand to a young man who had just climbed up from the boat. “Richard is methodical in everything, so he named his children in alphabetical sequence; that way he could just call them by their initials. May I present his fifth child, E. — that is, Edward — Gatling.”

“A pleasure, Edward” the First Mate said, shaking his hand. But the young man did not reply.

“He can’t speak,” Hugo explained, “because of an accident during an early gunnery experiment. The weapon’s shape is so dissimilar to that of a conventional gun that he mistook one end for the other. He was wounded, fortunately not seriously, but the damage to his speaking ability has proven to be a great inconvenience. I still remember his father running up to him after the discharge and shouting:

“What’s the matter, son E.? Gat’ caught your tongue?”

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